Building trust 

Battle lines drawn as commission scrutinizes Merc demolition

Every city official but Mayor John Engen seems to be walking on eggshells with regard to the Missoula Mercantile, having been instructed to avoid any appearance of bias as they consider HomeBase Montana's application to replace the historic building with a custom Marriott hotel.

While Engen has no formal say in the process, his decision to publicly endorse the project has put Merc advocates on the defensive—or, for resident Stephen E. Ludwig, the offensive.

"I think there's malfeasance at work and it ought to be brought out into the public," Ludwig told members of the Historic Preservation Commission at its March 17 meeting. "I see you guys having to play by the book, but there's another playbook out there and someone needs to take action. I think the mayor should be investigated, what he knew, how closely he's followed this so that he's sponsoring it ..."

Commissioners didn't just entertain Ludwig's suspicions. They seemed to advance them, requesting all correspondence between Engen and the Bozeman-based developers as part of a package of materials the HPC is assembling to review HomeBase's demolition permit application. The move signaled what will likely be a deeply skeptical look at the application by commissioners, some of whom see their role as already being circumvented by city staff and the developers.

"There's kind of an end-run around what the actual process should be," Commissioner Solomon Martin said at a recent meeting.

Martin declined to elaborate in an interview, but commissioners have repeatedly questioned how city officials have set the so-called "shot clock" they face to approve or deny HomeBase's request, which gives them 90 days to act upon the application. One commissioner, Nikki Manning, even quit after feeling frustrated with HPC's limited authority.

"It's sad to say that I felt like I had to resign from the HPC in order to advocate for preservation, considering the charge in the ordinance is to advocate for preservation," she says, "but our hands were being tied and we weren't being allowed to actually do our job."

Commissioners are volunteers who typically meet only once a month before rows of empty chairs, but now they are scrambling to address the most contentious and significant question of historic preservation the city has faced in memory.

click to enlarge After being surprised by plans to deconstruct the Missoula Mercantile building earlier this month, members of the city’s volunteer Historic Preservation Commission are preparing to take a critical look at the developer’s application—and perhaps Mayor John Engen. - PHOTO BY KATE WHITTLE
  • photo by Kate Whittle
  • After being surprised by plans to deconstruct the Missoula Mercantile building earlier this month, members of the city’s volunteer Historic Preservation Commission are preparing to take a critical look at the developer’s application—and perhaps Mayor John Engen.

"They've really been put under the gun," says Kayla Blackman, who is heading the Save the Merc preservation campaign alongside Manning.

The pressure was evident at the HPC's March 17 meeting, as Commissioner Steve Adler, who was filling in as the board's chair, admitted to a packed audience that he needed advice on how to run the proceedings. Commissioners then scanned through HomeBase's application page by page as some questioned the developer's assessment of the Merc's physical condition and its argument that rehabilitation in any form is not economically feasible.

After nearly three hours of discussion and public comment, the HPC voted to create a subcommittee to continue the review on a weekly basis. But once the commissioners adjourned eight minutes later, an attorney for the developers pointed out a procedural oversight that voided their action. Since the meeting had already adjourned, the error couldn't be undone.

Blackman describes the HPC's work as a "desperate, well-intentioned effort to get more information so they can make a good decision," but her advocacy group is also directing its campaign toward the Missoula City Council, which will likely hear an appeal of the HPC's decision, whatever it may be. Save the Merc has already garnered 1,300 signatures for its petition opposing demolition, and its leaders are pegging blame on city officials and HomeBase for forcing them into a more adversarial stance.

"Now we're starting to back into our corners, because if you're not willing to come to the table and talk to us, then it makes it difficult to have a dialogue," Blackman says. "And private property or not, [the Merc] is a huge part of the public downtown. So I think Missoulians deserve a voice and Save the Merc is that platform."

A March 22 announcement by one of the Merc's former developers promises to further foment distrust. The Nevada-based developer SGRE Acquisitions, whose plans to renovate the Merc fell through last year, issued a press release objecting to how its project was characterized in the current developers' application and arguing that its earlier proposal remains economically viable.

"I think it says a lot that we have a firm who had and still has the vision required to revitalize ... that corner and for some reason they seem to have been turned away, as opposed to walked away, multiple times," Manning says. "It just once again raises questions as to what exactly is going on here."

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