Reports of the Front Street Theatre’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. At least that’s the opinion of Beth Floridis, director of the Missoula Folklore Society and flag-bearer for nearly two dozen cultural organizations in Missoula that are now mounting a last-ditch effort to save the historic building from the wrecking ball.
The theater’s owner, Federated Department Stores—parent company of The Bon Marché—has offered to sell the site to the Missoula Parking Commission (MPC) on the condition that it raze the theater and put parking in its place. At 115 years old, the Front Street ranks as the second-oldest building downtown, after The Bon itself, but its fate has been dogged by reports that the building is structurally unsound, poorly restored, and so far below safety codes that it’s no longer worth saving. But now, Floridis says, new evidence suggests that the Front Street is much heartier than some have claimed.
“I had heard there were some problems with the building, so we were discouraged and we backed off,” Floridis says of her group’s long-standing effort to use the building. “Then about April, I got a copy of the code violations in effect, and realized they were not that big of a deal.”
The repairs necessary to bring the place up to code, she says, are “pretty minor,” ranging from buying a few fire extinguishers to installing new electrical outlets. While the theater will need bigger improvements down the line, Floridis estimates that it would cost just $5,000 to get the Front Street ready for immediate occupancy.
As a result, Floridis has presented officials with a proposition: Her group would buy the theater and let MPC keep the parking lot next to it. MPC could then build a parking garage, while Floridis’ group converts the theater into a cultural center. “The mission is to make it a multi-arts, multi-age, multi-cultural facility that would be affordable for the community to use,” she says. “Our idea is just to save the theater.” More than 20 local arts groups have expressed interest in the project, she notes.
But Floridis’ offer, it turns out, was similar to one already made by MPC itself. Last month, MPC asked Federated if it could buy only the theater’s parking lot and not disturb the building. Federated refused.
“We’re not interested in preserving it. It’s a warehouse,” says Rich Boberg, manager of The Bon. “We’re just interested in selling the entire property to convert it into parking, which will help The Bon and retailers downtown.”
Which leaves MPC with an all-or-nothing offer to consider. On Oct. 21, its board will meet to weigh the options. Meanwhile, the last of the tenants in the Front Street’s upstairs offices moved out this week.