Both sides weigh in on Mercantile’s future

Merc crop
The Missoula Mercantile facing Front Street. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

The Missoula City Council took another night of comments regarding a pending demolition permit for the Missoula Mercantile, though it saved its decision for another day.

The evening continued the period of public comment that opened in June – comments that followed several committee meetings and nearly three months of testimony before the Historic Preservation Commission.

The commission ultimately denied HomeBase a permit to deconstruct and redevelop the downtown property. That went against an earlier decision by the city’s Historic Preservation Office, which approved the permit.

HomeBase appealed the preservation commission’s decision, placing a final decision before the Land Use and Planning Committee, which meets on Wednesday to discuss the matter.

“I intend on sending this item back to committee and we won’t be voting on it tonight,” Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley said before the meeting began.

The comments offered Monday night haven’t much changed from when the debate began in March. Those in attendance lobbied for both outcomes, though those in favor of seeing the property redeveloped turned out in greater number than they have in the past.

The property has sat vacant for too long and is now blighted, hurting the downtown economy and the district’s small businesses, they said.

“I’m okay with taking it down – we need a viable business downtown,” said Pat Scharfe, who once worked in the Mercantile. “If we can bring people downtown and support our downtown, it’s so important. How any of you can lose focus on that is beyond me.”

HomeBase is proposing to build a branded hotel with 154 rooms and 20,000 square feet of retail on the lot, which pins the corner of Higgins Avenue and Front Street. Developers have said the hotel would create more than 300 new jobs paying $6 million in wages each year. It would also generate an estimated $13 million in annual revenue for the city.

The building has seen a number of buyers walk away due to renovation costs. That, some said, was the market speaking, and they urged the council to listen and allow HomeBase – a private developer – to renovate the block.

mercantile hotel
Hotel proposed by HomeBase.

“I have a lot of nostalgia for the Missoula Mercantile, but it’s not the building, it’s the atmosphere,” said Randy York. “This is the cornerstone of downtown, and you need people downtown. Something has to get in there where people have to stay downtown at night and shop.”

Others, however, maintained their opposition to the project. Several questioned the need for a downtown hotel while others defended the preservation commission’s decision to deny the permit.

“It seems to me everyone is in support of historic preservation up until the moment it interferes with something else,” one woman said. “If we can’t save a building that is our oldest building in the historic district, then what chance do our other historic buildings have?”

Rafeal Chacone said the building has too much history to lose. The company that founded the Mercantile was established in 1866. Most of the building was constructed in phases between 1882 and 1904, according to documents on file with the city.

“Missoulians have pride of place, and we value our history too much,” Chacone said. “We understand these old buildings matter. Every brick and every stick in these old places is a rich history.”

The City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee will further discuss the issue on Wednesday at 1 p.m.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com