“Cities are hot again:” Downtown Master Plan could boost district’s retail sector

The Saturday morning market takes places on a fall morning in downtown Missoula. The district captures roughly 10 percent of the regional retail market, though planning experts say it could do much better than that with a little tweaking and an open mind. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Back in the 1940s when department stores reigned supreme, downtown Missoula captured nearly 70 percent of the retail market, selling anything and everything, from a new mattress to a new car.But times have changed, not only in Missoula but across much of America.

“That was before shopping centers and strip centers were invented, and at that time, cities were very sustainable,” said Robert Gibbs. “If you lived in a surrounding neighborhood, it was a short walk to do all of your shopping. You didn’t need one car per driver in your household because it was still very convenient.”

Gibbs, a consulting member of the Dover, Kohl & Partners planning firm, said downtown Missoula now captures roughly 6 to 10 percent of the regional retail market. The other 90 percent takes to the suburbs to stock up on common goods.

But it doesn’t have to be that way as Missoula grows, Gibbs said. Successful cities are reinventing their downtown districts, not because it’s cool but rather because it’s necessary.

“Cities are hot again,” he said. “Millennials and other groups, including Empty Nesters, found they want to live and work in cities, and the investor class is returning to the city and turning away from the suburbs. There’s a lot to be said about having a really vibrant downtown. It’s the real solution to having a sustainable city.”

Gibbs capped off last week’s planning efforts as the city writes its new Downtown Master Plan. The plan takes a fresh look at the district’s future, including its buildings and parking, it’s plazas and art.

But the city’s retail future also played a role in the planning sessions and it will moving forward. And the data is in.

After researching the local market, Gibbs – who teaches retail strategies at Harvard University – said downtown Missoula could support 70,000 square feet of additional retail space by 2025.

That equates to 25 to 30 new retail businesses and restaurants.

“There are a lot of people who are not coming here,” he said. “There are thousands and thousands of people who have never come to your downtown and live here. There is an option to return market share to your downtown.”

Gibbs described Missoula as “one of the few functioning cities” he’s seen “in a long time.” While it serves as a tourist destination, it’s not a tourist trap. It’s a working city, and it must be designed as a place where residents can live, work and play, all under the umbrella of convenience.

That’s the intent of the new Downtown Master Plan and if designed correctly, the district could serve as a regional draw and capture more than 10 percent of the retail market. That could be achieved in part by inviting new national chains downtown, replacing the clout that was once the department store.

Macy’s, once located downtown, closed more than a decade ago.

“Department stores are good for shopping districts because they bring in about 30 percent of those shoppers,” Gibbs said. “Generally, all of the retail gets about 30 percent of their sales from the department store. We know that to be true because when a department store closes, independent, small retail sales drop about 30 percent. We have been told that happened here. When Macy’s closed, your sales dropped significantly.”

The interest in the district’s future is high and it comes as the old Downtown Master Plan sunsets. More than 80 percent of the items envisioned in the 2009 plan have come to fruition, including public parking, more downtown lodging and $850 million worth of investment.

With Missoula poised for growth, a new plan is needed to guide the district’s evolution. As presented last week, it includes a focus on housing and retail, better connectivity, parking, urban infill, jobs and public transit.

“We think there’s a market for a public market, like Pikes Street Market in Seattle,” he said. “You can support a fairly significant market that sells produce, meet, fish, cheese, baked goods and prepared goods. These will service the people who live in downtown and in the entire region, and they become major attractions for tourists.”

Gibbs said Missoula has untapped potential, and its walkability score of 97 out of 100 has placed it on the radar of investors with on eye on building a sustainable future.

While the downtown retail sector is healthy, Gibbs said, it’s performing below the national average. The city should consider capitalizing off its amenities when writing its new master plan to help bolster downtown businesses – and it should keep an open mind.

“From zero to 100, you got almost a perfect walkable score, and that’s extremely high,” Gibbs said. “If I know that, it means there are hundreds of investors who know that too.

“Investors are looking for places that have a walk score of 80 or higher. That’s the threshold. They no longer will invest in offices or housing or apartments or shopping centers. They want to avoid the areas with low walk scores because it doesn’t appeal to a lot of consumers today.”