This march, when the construction on Southwest Higgins moved south of the Bi-Lo grocery store, owner Jim Edwards let out a sigh of relief. Last year, Edwards had to rely on an emergency loan to keep the store running after a summer of sluggish business, which he attributes to the noise, dust and blockade of the construction. But the business he lost hasn’t returned, and Edwards filed a lawsuit July 7 against the city for lost receipts.
“Business is tough enough in Missoula, but to have the city put you out of business because of road construction, it’s ridiculous,” he says.
Edwards says that customers have been even more outraged than he and his staff. For months, he says, they approached him saying that what the city was doing was criminal. So when customer and attorney Steve Hock suggested Edwards engage the city through Hock’s law office, Edwards thought it was the right move.
Both Hock and Edwards agree that their original intent was not to file suit, but to speed up the project.
“From the minute they started, I was on these guys telling them you need to double-shift these guys, you need to work six days a week,” Edwards says. “I could just see that it was a total, total waste of time.”
Hock’s research on the case turned up a series of e-mails he believes demonstrate the callous approach the city has taken in dealing with Bi-Lo. According to the allegations laid out in the complaint, Mayor Mike Kadas sent an e-mail to City Project Manager Kate Pope stating, “Kate, could you respond to Mr. Edwards that we appreciate his concerns and have forwarded his comments to Steve [King] for consideration or something polite like that.” An e-mail reply from Pope to Kadas states, “I would rather not engage Mr. Edwards any further than necessary.”
Hock and Edwards say they were shocked that city officials would demonstrate such indifference.
“The city was totally unresponsive to Bi-Lo’s complaints,” says Hock. “The lawsuit raises some larger issues about where the city of Missoula is headed. Are we going to be another rural community dominated by large, national chain stores, or are we going to be a place where independent, local businesses thrive?”
City attorney Jim Nugget says the city doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits, but did say that construction is just one of those things that has to happen in the public streets, and aggrieved parties generally aren’t able to recover their purported losses. He adds that the Bi-Lo case has a long way to go.
“This is a state highway route, this a state highway project, this a Montana Department of Transportation project. There’re private contractors doing it and private consultants,” says Nugget. “[The Bi-Lo case] has some shortfalls…they haven’t even joined all the necessary parties to the lawsuit.”