In September 2008, a visiting consultant with Crandall Arambula warned Missoula of the importance of its Macy's department store.

"Losing Macy's would be the canary in the coal mine," said project manager Jason Graf. "It's a critical site for strengthening the retail market downtown."

Well, the bird kicked the can this week.

Macy's Inc. announced Tuesday that it's shuttering its Missoula storefront in 60 days. Fifty-five local employees will lose their jobs in what the corporation calls an "annual process to selectively prune underperforming locations."

Like last month's Smurfit-Stone announcement, the Macy's closure has broader impacts than just the loss of jobs. The historic downtown corner location—home over the years to the Missoula Mercantile, Bon Marche and, since 2005, Macy's—has always been a vital part of the downtown economy. During the creation of Missoula's much-needed Downtown Master Plan, Crandall Arambula dubbed the store an "anchor," a key component to luring shoppers away from Southgate Mall and Reserve Street to Higgins Avenue.

"Our assumption was that Macy's might be able to weather the economic downturn...," said firm principal George Crandall upon hearing the news. "I think adjustments can be made [to the plan], but it certainly is a setback."

The thing is, Macy's closure was hardly unforeseen. The company downsized its regional divisions considerably in February 2008, shedding $100 million in expenses. Longtime Missoula General Manager Rich Boberg left his position in September 2008, further throwing the stability of the location into question. This week's announcement was simply the final nail in the coffin.

"It's definitely tough news," says Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association (MDA). "It's definitely not something that we wanted to see happen."

Nevertheless, city officials did their best to find an optimistic spin. Mayor John Engen says urban renewal district funds could help rehabilitate the 120-year-old building and make it more attractive to new buyers. He also stresses the city is well positioned to take the hit.

"If this were 1978, we would think of this as a dead blow to downtown," he says. "Today, we think of it as a painful setback, but a circumstance from which we can recover."

McCarthy added her own shred of optimism, ending an e-mail to MDA members by writing, in part, "With change comes opportunity. Chin up!"

That sentiment certainly holds true for the Macy's corporation, which operates more than 800 department stores nationwide, plus more than 40 Bloomingdale's locations. Tuesday's release about the store closing included news of a Bloomingdale's storefront going up in Dubai this year. Perhaps they're at work on a Downtown Master Plan, as well.

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