Hollow victory 

The consequences of saving Missoula's historic Merc

I should be happy, because warm weather is here, Missoula has two functioning Indian restaurants and the Historic Preservation Commission voted not to demolish the Mercantile building. Yet I feel strangely empty. Birdsong and turmeric fill the air, and HomeBase Montana's permit to knock down one of the city's oldest buildings has been denied, but somehow my heart does not leap to the joy of summer or whatever.

Why is that? If the commission ruled the way I wanted it to, how am I yet bummed? Maybe it has something to do with what route the committee took to reach its decision.

When last we checked on their deliberations, back in April, members were outraged to be accused of bias after signing a "Save the Merc" petition. Several of them decried the city attorney's recommendation to recuse themselves, but they did not rule.

Neither did they rule at their May meeting, which too few of them attended to achieve a quorum. Finally, after a four-hour meeting last week, the committee voted 6-0 against demolition, with four members abstaining and chairman Mike Monsos absent.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Historic Preservation Committee decided to preserve the historic Mercantile. Along the way, they alerted us all that A) they exist and B) they are not good at operating their branch of city government. Perhaps through no fault of their own but possibly by botching meetings and incurring obvious conflicts of interest, the commission wrecked its credibility in the process of issuing an opinion.

It was not a satisfying working of our civic machinery, nor did it satisfy as a resolution to the Mercantile's ongoing saga. HomeBase immediately appealed the committee's decision, which means the plan to destroy the Merc will come before the Missoula City Council. The council, for its part, has no established procedure for deciding whether to overrule or uphold the preservation committee's decision.

Given the many emails from city officials in support of demolition that were read into the record at the committee's last proceedings, it seems possible the council's deliberations will face similar accusations of bias to those of the HPC. At least council has more practice holding public meetings. But it appears HomeBase's plan to knock down the Merc has not been resolved so much as called up to a more professional league of government.

click to enlarge opinion_merc.jpg

All this raises a question for those of us who think we support the committee's recent decision. What does a saved Merc look like?

It doesn't look like what happened last week. The commission's decision feels provisional in the extreme. But even if city council upheld the committee's decision and Mayor Engen chased the developers out of town with his oversized mayoral mallet, the Merc would still be a derelict building languishing in the middle of downtown.

It would still await a buyer, even after we ran off the most promising prospect it had seen in years. And those of us who don't want to see it knocked down to make way for a hotel would still have to answer the uncomfortable question of what we saved the Merc for.

The university isn't going to buy it. Neither is any existing local firm. Thanks to its vast size, unfinished interior and—depending on whom you ask—possible instability, whoever wants to use the building for any purpose but nostalgia will need an enormous amount of capital.

Purchasing and renovating the Merc will cost so much money as to virtually guarantee whoever does it will come from outside Missoula. They will have no more affection for our historic downtown storefront than HomeBase and Marriott have. If we want to preserve the Merc, as the Historic Preservation Commission has declared we do, we cannot rely on the market to do it.

We need a plan. The city of Missoula has, at least provisionally, committed to preserving that building. It is therefore obliged to either seek out a buyer who can renovate the Merc and productively occupy it or lay out terms to attract one.

The market has proven insufficient on this issue. It offered its assistance in the form of a national hotel chain and demolition deal, and we declined. If we plan to stick by our decision, we should now make a plan for government to intervene.

That may or may not be wise, but it certainly wouldn't be unprecedented. In recent memory, the city has committed tax money to a Starbucks on Brooks Street and to help expand the mall. It could find a way to lure some buyer to a historic building we all claim to love, or at least want more than a hotel. But that would require us to save the Merc by doing something other than rejecting plans to destroy it.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and their near-universal value of inaction at combatblog.net

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