Lofty dreams for The Florence

For nearly 40 years, Bob Minto has worked doggedly to uphold The Florence's reputation as a key business space in downtown Missoula. And last week he announced his loftiest goal yet: To turn the historic building back into a premier hotel.

Out-of-towners shouldn't get too excited about booking a room yet, though. Minto, acting president and CEO of the ALPS Corporation, stresses that the idea is still in the feasibility stage. The earliest The Florence could reopen as a hotel, he says, would be 2013.

"What we're doing today is spreading the pieces of the puzzle on the table," Minto says. "We're going to start putting the puzzle together to see what the picture is. Right now we're still trying to find all the pieces."

At least one large piece is already in place. Minto lists the businesses currently occupying the first floor—Red Bird Wine Bar, Catalyst Café and Two Sisters Catering—as a ready-made infrastructure of upscale hotel services. Several years ago, ALPS Corp. even restored the lobby space to how it appeared in the 1940s. Minto says turning the upper floors into hotel rooms is the "logical extension of that."

Minto is hardly the first to recognize the opportunity for a boutique hotel in downtown Missoula. Local businessman Mike Ellis had similar plans for the space at 139 East Main Street in late 2008. Indeed, Minto's sudden interest in the idea in January was sparked by a conversation with Ellis over the closure of Macy's. Now the two have thrown in together, with Ellis' space offering a new home for businesses displaced by The Florence project.

"It's cooperative, it's coordinated," Ellis says. "It becomes one larger project instead of two smaller ones going their own ways."

Yet the odds at present seemed stacked against such a large financial gamble. According to the Missoula Downtown Association, five businesses have closed in the downtown area since January; only one has opened in that time. Ellis and Minto still see opportunity, but agree that the project will be abandoned if it doesn't work for the community.

"If it isn't a good deal," Minto says, "it's not going to happen."

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