On a recent Friday afternoon Jared Robinson busies himself stocking shelves at Summer Sun Garden and Brew with bottled beers from as far off as Scotland, Belgium and New Zealand. The next aisle over is crowded with boxes of wine ready to be unpacked. A line of seven coolers contains craft brews from Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Colorado, Hawaii and every Montana brewery that bottles or cans its product.
Some bottles have been separated from six packs in a separate bank of coolers, available as singles for just under $2. There's even a cooler solely for hard ciders and gluten-free beer options. Domestics like Bud Light are relegated to three bottom shelves next to a collection of imported macros.
Robinson, the store's brew manager, claims it's the biggest retail craft beer selection in town. It's been in the back of several minds over at Summer Sun, even before the company's move to Missoula's budding Westside neighborhood last fall. As Robinson puts it, "This was our next big expansion." His words may as well apply to store's burgeoning Westside neighborhood, which has been revitalized by the arrival of Draught Works, Freestone Climbing Gym, LB Snow and others, as well as Summer Sun itself.
Summer Sun has undergone an interesting evolution since 2008, when owner Steve Luedecke partnered with Sabrina Smith to open The Green Light next to the Double Front Cafe on Alder Street. What's now Summer Sun was the gardening side of the eco-friendly home furnishing store. The "green rush" that took hold during Montana's medical marijuana boom in 2009 added to an increase in overall demand for gardening supplies, Luedecke says. Business was good enough that Luedecke and Smith relocated the clothing and housewares side of The Green Light to the corner of Higgins and Broadway and dedicated the Alder location exclusively to gardening and homebrewing supplies.
"At the time, gardening was really exploding in Montana in general," Luedecke says. "I had no idea that was going to happen, but we definitely reacted to it."
Luedecke and Smith split the business a year later, and Summer Sun was born. Then, after the Montana Legislature passed a strict medical marijuana reform bill in spring 2011, the bottom fell out on the green rush. Luedecke estimates Summer Sun's business declined by nearly 75 percent. "We were definitely looking at other ways to round out our business and keep revenue coming in," he says. "That's when we started thinking about the beer and wine, doing a bottle shop basically."
The notion was part of what attracted Luedecke to a storefront space where Spruce Street branches off from Toole Avenue, just a few yards down the road from Draught Works Brewery. Summer Sun hosted its grand opening there on Dec. 1, 2012. The store finally secured a grocer's license this spring and is already carrying a number of natural foods. Robinson has been securing as many beer and wine labels as possible, sometimes at the direct request of neighbors.
"There's neighborhood people who have come in and said, 'Can you carry this? This is the wine I like to drink, and I can't find it anymore,'" Luedecke says. "We've been able to find some of those wines, bring them in here and have them for the neighborhood."
Summer Sun isn't the only business that's been attracted to this single block of Westside property. LB Snow, a ski and snowboard repair shop that specializes in crafting splitboards for backcountry snowboarding, moved in around the corner on Toole last fall. Draught Works and the Freestone Climbing Gym had already transformed the neighborhood into a hip, bustling place in recent years, and renovations are currently underway in the space behind Summer Sun to accommodate the newest neighbor: Warm Springs Productions, whose hit series "Mountain Men" began its second season on the History Channel June 9.
The city's even moving toward improving the complicated intersection where Toole, Spruce and Scott Street meet. Construction of a mini urban roundabouta project estimated at around $164,500is expected to begin next month. Former Ward 2 Councilwoman Pam Walzer, who started working to address concerns about the intersection when she was first elected in 2007, says the roundabout is a long time coming. That improvement, along with a burgeoning business scene along Spruce and Toole, furthers some of the desires local residents expressed more than a decade ago in the joint Northside/Westside Neighborhood Plan.
"We're finally moving toward what the neighborhood plan has all been about," Walzer says. "Talking about small, local businesses coming in and making it a more walkable community. This is the fruition of all that had been hoped for."
Bob Oaks, executive director of the North Missoula Community Development Corporation, sees the new storefronts as evidence that "people are taking advantage of opportunities that exist in the neighborhood, starting to see them and see them newly." Oaks, a longtime advocate for revitalization of Missoula's Northside and Westside neighborhoods, likens the scene unfolding near the Toole-Spruce intersection to that which has played out at Burns Street Square, now home to the Missoula Community Food Co-op, Burns St. Bistro and NMCDC's office.
"You see a lot more life around that area than there used to be," Oaks says, referring to the area around Draught Works. "You see a lot more life around the Bistro and the Co-op than there used to be, too. That was a decrepit warehouse that was getting vandalized, stones thrown through the windows and stuff. Now it's hopping with activity."
Luedecke, himself a Westside resident, feels Summer Sun is filling a niche in his neighborhood. So too are Draught Works, LB Snow, Freestone and others, he says. The Toole-Spruce intersection is just one example of a community undergoing change in an improving economy. "It's growing, it's changing, new businesses are coming in," Luedecke says. "I think neighborhoods go through cycles, and this is the upswing right here."