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Imperfect choice

What does demolishing the Merc say about Missoula?

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Like many Missoula residents, I was disappointed to hear of plans to demolish the Missoula Mercantile building and replace it with a Residence Inn by Marriott. Whatever is to be said for a hotel, it's not very exciting to the people who live here.

There is already a large hotel downtown in the Holiday Inn, plus the smaller but still substantial Days Inn. The names of these franchises call attention to what we would like from the word "inn"—homey, local, particular—and what they actually are: sterile, international, uniform. If we're trying to keep Missoula weird, bringing in a hotel chain with over 6,000 locations probably won't do it.

But here the perfect may be the enemy of the good. We're not talking about demolishing the art museum or, god forbid, a brewery. We're talking about a building that has stood empty since 2010, attracting only pigeons and the vague sense that someone should do something about it. Before that it housed a Macy's, which is a useful store when you're shopping for a wedding present but could hardly be called a local business. The notion that a Marriott is unworthy of the Mercantile might come from not having to imagine anything specific there for the last six years.

As uninspiring as a giant hotel may be, it will at least increase the number of people living downtown by 500 or so. Those people will be traveling and therefore likely to purchase supplies in the neighborhood, which might encourage the growth of useful businesses. Perhaps downtown would be able to support ventures outside the hospitality and boutique sectors if more people actually lived there.

But symbolically, this plan is awful. The Mercantile was built in 1877. It was an early bastion of Missoula enterprise, and most of the downtown we now recognize grew around it. As a historic center of commerce, it symbolized Missoula's role as a magnet drawing people and plans from the vast, empty spaces of western Montana. It showed that we were important. To knock it down and build a Marriott would suggest that we have not joined the national economy so much as succumbed to it.

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This sentiment was broadly expressed after a presentation by HomeBase Montana—the Bozeman-based real estate development group that wants to demolish the Merc and build the Marriott—before the Missoula Historic Preservation Commission last week. Their deal is not yet finalized, and everyone who spoke during the public comment period opposed it. The commission, tasked with preserving historic buildings, was predictably nonplussed by the plan to knock one down.

"The Merc is a touchstone. It tells us the story of how Missoula came to be," Commissioner Solomon Martin said. "We know that there are plenty of hotels in Missoula, but there is only one Mercantile."

He's absolutely right—there is only one Mercantile. But considering its condition, that's probably good. HomeBase claims that two different engineering firms have found it structurally unsound. That conclusion seems questionable, given that it was purchased in 2011 by investors who presumably did not believe it was about to collapse. But those investors could not figure out anything profitable do with it. Since Macy's left, no one has.

In this sense, the Merc symbolizes not only Missoula's past but our present. We would like to have a vibrant economy driven by local business. We would like downtown to be the cultural and historical center of our community, not just a place where football fans get drunk. We just can't figure out how to do it.

As of press time, there are no plans to convert the Mercantile back into a market for livestock. Neither will it become a sawmill or a smelting plant anytime soon. Those industries made Missoula and, by extension, the Mercantile into the commercial hubs they once were, but they are gone. As a community, we need to figure out where to go from here. Wishing we could stay the same without the industries that made us what we are is about as useful as 80,000 square feet of locked and empty space.

I hope the answer isn't a giant hotel. I don't particularly like the Marriott—much as I didn't like Dickey's Barbecue when it briefly held the center of the Badlander complex or the hideous Verizon store that metastasized on the corner of Broadway and Madison. Those chains are boring and gross. But they took hold because our local economy wasn't strong enough to keep them out.

The choice is not between the Marriott and the most wonderful Mercantile you can imagine. The choice is between the Marriott and what someone is willing to spend millions of dollars to build instead. If we don't want to be like everywhere else, we need to start being something ourselves.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and problems other people should solve at combatblog.net.

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