A face-lift at 32: It’s not exactly the sort of news you hear on Missoula’s streets every day. But in this case the “work” being done is to the streets themselves—specifically Missoula’s Hip Strip—and the changes reflect a city’s natural growth, not vanity. Since last summer, the blocks along Higgins Avenue and Third Street just south of the Higgins Street Bridge (first dubbed the Hip Strip by tenants in 1972) have seen myriad store openings, closures and moves that have changed the face—though not the spirit, say store owners—of one of Missoula’s most popular shopping spots.
“It’s the best shopping block I think between Seattle and Minneapolis,” says Max Gilliam, owner of the 25-year-old Carlo’s One Night Stand on Third Street and Bathing Beauties Beads on the corner of Third Street and Higgins Avenue. Gilliam came to Missoula from California 30 years ago and says the Hip Strip is “still very alternative, but it’s like the ‘new’ alternative. Where beads used to be, for example, sort of hippie…now the beads are more refined and sort of classic looking,” he says. “So the types of businesses haven’t changed so much as they’ve upscaled.”
The restaurants, for one, have gotten better, he says. Gilliam remembers when the Gilded Lily, “a very gourmet hippie restaurant,” was the only restaurant on the block back in the ’70s. Today, alongside Scotty’s Table and The Hob Nob, The Bridge has long replaced the Gilded Lily and in May opened its expanded deli across the street in the space occupied by Crystal Video until that business moved three storefronts to the south. Bernice’s Bakery, more than 20 years old, changed ownership from Esther Ball to Marco and Christine Littig about six months ago; eight weeks ago, another coffee shop opened its doors: The Brew Pot Coffee Shoppe at 736 S. Higgins Ave.
On that same block, Missoula Bicycle Works owner Alex Gallego bought the building next to the Roxy where Western Montana Lighting used to be, and in December he moved his store from its three-year location at 521 S. Higgins Ave. The For Rent sign in his old shop’s window is one of two on the block; “Uncle” Bill Stoianoff moved The Joint Effort to 1918 Brooks St. in June, and that space remains empty.
One of the more unexpected illustrations of the Hip Strip’s upscaling is the opening of Jule’s Model and Talent Agency on Third Street. The space, which used to house a karate studio and King Productions (King Productions is still there), was renovated by Kurt King and two of his six daughters, Deserae Pollock and Aubrey Jessop, and opened Nov. 29. Jessop and Pollock, who have modeled for 12 and 10 years respectively, say that with more movies being filmed in Montana and with several different advertising firms in town, they’ve been talking for two years about opening their agency.
So far Pollock and Jessop have about 20 girls on file. Jessop says that when people ask them how a modeling agency will fare in Missoula, “we just tell them, well, we don’t know until we get out there.” She says their goal is to show girls that “you don’t have to be the average 5’ 11” and 120 pounds. It’s a stereotype that we’re trying to change.”
“We’re down-to-earth Montana girls,” adds Pollock.
Two doors down, one of the neighborhood’s most down-to-earth storeowners closed shop Dec. 27. After 25 years and 11 months, Aaron Hitchcock spent his last day in Hitchcock’s Second Hand selling goods and fixtures at 75 percent off. While the Hip Strip may remain a popular shopping area, he says the way people shop has changed. “With the Reserve strip going in, and all the…products that are sold and don’t last to become used, that affects [business] a lot, so you don’t have the quality used goods to sell that we used to have, and people just go out there and buy another new [product].”
Lucky for new Sports Exchange owners Tim Hall and Beth Berlin, used sporting goods are still selling well. Two doors down from Hitchcock’s, Hall says that after they bought the business (which has been in the same location for 20 years) from five-year owner Jenny Daniel in July, they did some painting and reorganizing, “but that’s it. It didn’t need a lot done with it.”
With the turn of the New Year, Shakespeare & Co. owner Garth Whitson moved his bookstore four doors from the Sports Exchange. He left his North Higgins Avenue location after being given notice that the owner of the property has plans to develop an office plaza there beginning in April 2005.
Other plans to renovate North Higgins Avenue may eventually impact the Hip Strip, too: Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA) Director Ellen Buchanan says the MRA has commissioned Missoula’s WGM Group to do a traffic and streetscape study for downtown’s Urban Renewal District #1, which includes portions of the Hip Strip. So far, a master plan includes improvements such as wider sidewalks, slant parking and new street lighting. The two or three blocks of Higgins Avenue north of Broadway will be the focus of the first phase, Buchanan says, and will act as a template for further downtown redevelopment. Because Urban Renewal District #1 expires at the end of June 2005 (after which time tax increment funds will no longer be available to fund such renovations), this first phase should be under contract by spring, she says.
WGM Group civil engineer Brent Campbell, project manager for the Downtown Streets Project, says that plans for the Hip Strip could include removing the median from the intersection of Third Street and Higgins Avenue; slant parking along the old Joint Effort building; and brick sidewalks and other aesthetic treatments to reflect the neighborhood’s character. There’s no timeline yet for when these projects might begin. “The plan is largely unfunded at this point,” Campbell says. “It’s still up to the community to figure out how we want to fund it.”