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Northside stride

Bob Oaks' healthy 'hood is a happy 'hood

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How can one man’s spaghetti impact a whole neighborhood? When the man is North-Missoula Community Development Corporation (NMCDC) Executive Director Bob Oaks, and the dinner guests are the Northwest Area Foundation’s “Great Strides Award” team, the answer is: significantly.

Of the six finalists (out of 44 applicants) that the Northwest Area Foundation visited before awarding four $100,000 “Great Strides Awards” in the award’s inaugural year, Oaks was the only one to cook up a spaghetti dinner, says Northwest Area Foundation Communi-ty Liaison Karla Miller.

Not that Oaks’ spaghetti was the deciding factor in the Missoula nonprofit earning the award—which is given to organizations in the eight-state Northwest area for community-based approaches to reducing poverty—but it could be seen as one small ingredient in the recipe for the big win.

And that soup-to-nuts approach is exactly what Oaks and his two staffers, Coordinator Jerry Petasek and Community Organizer Molly Moody, employ to fulfill NMCDC’s mission: creating healthy neighborhoods.

“We need to invest in all aspects of [a neighborhood],” Oaks says, sitting in the main room of NMCDC’s headquarters at 819 Stoddard. “If we built housing for people, that would be a suitable mission for any particular organization…but we’re also saying, well, what’s the neighborhood like that those people will live in.”

To that end, NMCDC has, since its incorporation in 1996, helped with such quality-of-life projects as the Northside Greenway, the Northside Railroad Pedestrian Overpass, MUD’s North Missoula Tool Loan Library (which was run out of Oaks’ garage for the first five years), the playground at Lowell School, and the Hill and Homestead Preservation Coalition, which is currently renovating the caretaker’s house at the Moon-Randolph Homestead so that a year-round caretaker can supervise the site and grant visitors more access to the property.

Petasek and Moody say the award money will be spread among all of NMCDC’s projects rather than devoted to any one project, as grant money might be.

NMCDC won the award, Miller says, for best exhibiting the five elements their foundation was looking for: involvement in work that will lead to larger community outcomes; ability to develop existing community assets; ability to increase the economic opportunities within the community; an approach to building for the whole community, not just a few people; and inclusion of the community in decisions that affect it.

Oaks stresses that NMCDC strongly encourages neighborhood involvement in board meetings, or by just having neighbors stop by the office with ideas. “This is their nonprofit organization, and it’s here for them,” he says. Right now, half of the organization’s board is composed of neighborhood residents; one of those members, Oaks says, came up with the idea for the Northside’s Outdoor Cinema. Petasek adds that one of the homeowners at NMCDC’s Whittier Court, a five-unit development constructed in 2002 through NMCDC’s Land Stewardship Program, recently suggested renovating the basketball court at the Northside Park. That homeowner put together a business plan for the potential project, and Petasek helped put him in touch with the right people to talk to on the city level.

“We’re just the facilitators,” Petasek says humbly of NMCDC’s efforts. Petasek himself landed his current job as coordinator of NMCDC’s Land Stewardship Program after buying one of the homes at Whittier Court. He started hanging out in the NMCDC offices, and “I got a job out of it as well as a home,” he says.

As coordinator behind the developing plans for an NMCDC food co-op, Moody is looking to create employment opportunities for locals as well. “The whole idea [behind the co-op] is to recreate the neighborhood store idea,” Moody says. “It involves members and keeps prices low because the members have to commit to some type of volunteer work hours to the co-op, and it creates the atmosphere where people know how their store is run, and it would be focusing on local foods.” Once it finds a building, the co-op will also include a deli, which will work in partnership with the Missoula Domestic Violence Coalition and the YWCA to employ people transitioning out of at-risk situations.

Until the co-op opens, the NMCDC’s Buying Club, founded by the neighborhood in 2001, continues to be another valuable NMCDC service. Once a month, neighbors can save money by placing bulk orders of local products, as well as food from a small Oregon farm, at the NMCDC. Beginning in April, Oaks says, the Buying Club’s delivery spot will transfer from the NMCDC building to the Gold Dust Building, and food stamps will also be accepted.

Oaks, who has been active in Missoula’s Northside organization since the 1980s, says the biggest change he’s seen in the neighborhood in 20 years is “just more optimism. When we first started organizing the neighborhood, the prevailing Northside worldview was, ‘We’re Northsiders. You can’t fight City Hall. You can’t beat the railroad. You accept your lot in life,’” he says. “And I think people have learned that if they get organized, there is an awful lot that can be done to improve your circumstances and to control your environment.”

At the same time, challenges remain. The hardest part of meeting NMCDC’s mission, Oaks says, is this “fragmented world view. People have tunnel vision now, and they think…‘we’re just about housing, or we’re just about education.’” NMCDC’s job, he says, is “helping people understand that perspective of neighborhood health. It isn’t just about one thing. It’s about how all the things work together…and if one part of that system is sick, it will make everything malfunction.”

rtroy@missoulanews.com

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