City Council farewell: Brock Bentley seeks connections as fairgrounds director

Emily Brock Bentley is leaving the Missoula City Council to focus her full-time professional energies on her job as director of the Missoula County Fairgrounds. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of stories about the four departing members of the Missoula City Council.

When, after the 2016 presidential election, many of her politically progressive friends leaned hard to the left, Emily Brock Bentley had the opposite inclination.

“I couldn’t believe how politicized our country had become – how far apart we were from one another,” she said. “My instinct was to look to the right and really try to understand and connect with people who have different perspectives.”

She has found those outlets in her first year of work as director of the Missoula County Fairgrounds and her final year as a Missoula City Council member.

The results, she said, have been life-affirming.

“We just can’t stay in our bubbles, isolated from people who think differently,” Brock Bentley said. “It feels like the fairgrounds is a place that brings people out of their bubbles. It’s a place that brings people together and encourages them to be creative, to see and understand other viewpoints and other ways of life.”

The same is true, she believes, with the efforts of Soft Landing Missoula to bring refugees from across the globe into this fold in the mountains.

The newcomers’ presence and perspectives encourage Missoula citizens to think in new and creative ways, she said. They bring new ideas from unfamiliar places. They broaden and deepen the city’s cultural fabric.

And so, while bittersweet, Brock Bentley ended her City Council tenure enthused by the opportunities before her: the challenge of leading the fairgrounds into the future, the emergence of a new generation of city leaders, the continuation of resettlement efforts amid a continuing national debate.

“The city is in good hands,” she said in an interview. “The people on City Council are such talented public servants, so creative and willing to work so tirelessly for our community.”

As her final week as the Ward 3 representative came to a close, Brock Bentley reflected on the council’s successes and shortcomings during her tenure, and the lessons she took away from the experience.

Both in an interview and in her last remarks to the council, Brock Bentley topped her list with the city’s condemnation and acquisition of Mountain Water Co., for the first time placing the local drinking water system in public ownership.

“I’m 37 years old and am pretty sure I’ve checked off the biggest accomplishment of my career,” she said. “The Mountain Water purchase was monumental for our city.”

“We took a huge risk,” she said. “It was so much work behind the scenes, preparing for the trial, meeting all the legal challenges. We worked so hard on it, and it totally paid off. I’m so proud of that work – of Missoula Water.”

Brock Bentley is proud, too, of her work as chairwoman of the City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee, where she led the process that resulted in the demolition of the Missoula Mercantile building and construction of a Marriott hotel at Front Street and Higgins Avenue.

“I learned a lot about strategy,” she said. “The Mercantile experience taught me about having a fair and transparent process – that sometimes the outcome isn’t as important as the process. I think we were fair and open, and Judge Deschamps agreed.

“It took a lot out of us personally, though. It definitely pulled me away from my family. It was hard.”

Ward 4 Councilman John DiBari, now chairman of the Land Use and Planning Committee, said Brock Bentley taught him and other council members by example during the Merc and other controversies.

“In more ways than I’ll be able to express, I’ve learned a lot from you,” DiBari said during Brock Bentley’s final council meeting. “I appreciate your strategic thinking and the way you approach problems. Luckily, I’ll know where to find you.”

Added Ward 5 Councilwoman Julie Armstrong, “Emily taught me how to stay focused and stay fierce without getting emotional when that was the road I wanted to go down.”

Now, she faces the daunting challenge of refining and implementing a new vision for the Missoula County Fairgrounds, a vast and mostly undeveloped acreage in the heart of Missoula.

In fact, Brock Bentley chose not to run for re-election to her council seat so that she could focus her professional energies on the fairgrounds’ renewal and redevelopment.

“I didn’t have the time to commit to both the council and the fairgrounds,” she said. “And I didn’t have the political capital to do both. I need to spend that capital advocating for the fairgrounds.

“But the experience on council definitely prepared me for the fairgrounds job. If I could have done City Council full time, I would have loved that, but that is not an option. The fairgrounds is my dream job. I get to do local government as my full-time job.”

In his farewell remarks to four departing council members, Mayor John Engen hailed Brock Bentley’s service to Ward 3, which he represented before becoming mayor.

“Emily ran for City Council as determined as any soul I’ve met,” he said. “She conducted herself with dignity and grace.”

“To watch her serve Ward 3, which has some diversity and some specific issues and challenges, has been a pleasure,” Engen said. “She has engaged in dealing with those issues in a way that I found remarkably fair and open-minded. She is willing to listen to and work for – to engage and work with – folks with whom she did not necessarily share an opinion or an idea or a hope, but she represented those constituents with compassion and intelligence, and she got stuff done for the ward.”

While regretting Brock Bentley’s departure from City Council, the mayor said he’s delighted she is now leading the fairgrounds.

“If there’s anybody I would trust to figure out what happens with the fairgrounds, it turns out that is Emily,” said Engen, who said he first met Brock Bentley when she was working for Missoula’s Flagship program in the middle schools.

“It was evident then that Emily believed in social justice, that everyone deserved an opportunity to live well, be well and do well in our community,” he said. “And she put those principles into action by helping kids at probably the most difficult time in their lives. And she made those lives better.”

In her work at the fairgrounds, which began last January, Brock Bentley said she has found the opportunity she craved after the 2016 elections, meeting and truly connecting with citizens from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives.

“I love my job,” she said. “The people are delightful – hardworking, smart, kind.”

She also loves that the county property sits right in the middle of Missoula, along the rapidly redeveloping Brooks Street corridor.

In fact, Missoula County has asked the city to add the fairgrounds to its Midtown urban renewal district to help finance the site’s redevelopment.

As approved by the county commissioners in 2016, the plan adds 19 acres of green space and 6,000 feet of non-motorized trails connecting nearby neighborhoods to the fairgrounds. It includes a new rodeo arena, a livestock center, an exhibit hall and an expanded Glacier Ice Rink.

“The redevelopment is so important for our community,” Brock Bentley said. “We’re taking down the fence and putting in trails. We’re making changes that will improve the lives of our next-door neighbors and increase property values for homes and businesses.”

Phase I of the redevelopment begins this year.

Over the past 11 months, she’s been “just blown away” by the 4-H program and all that children learn from its livestock programs: compassion, responsibility, the realities of life and death.

“With the redevelopment, kids in Missoula’s urban core will have an opportunity to have some of those same experiences,” Brock Bentley said. “Really, people from all over the state will have an opportunity to come into the heart of Missoula and connect with our rural heritage.”

“I really see the fairgrounds as providing a physical space that brings people from all backgrounds together,” she said. “We can make the connections right here in the middle of Missoula.”