Both the city and county of Missoula have backed the adoption of an interpretive plan for the downtown district, calling it a positive step in preserving the past while navigating a changing landscape.
“The continued development and activity downtown has brought with it some interest in tying in the history and heritage of Missoula as part of the experience folks can have when they are downtown,” said Chet Crowser with community and planning services at the county. “It outlines goals and directions, and as opportunities arise, folks might look to work on some of these interpretive concepts.”
The plan covers a range of themes within the district, including its gathering places, its businesses, community life and history. It offers a vision for a heritage program that connects the district’s natural and cultural resources under a single umbrella.
“This all came to be in 2017 when the Historic Preservation Commission had their first Unseen Missoula tour and were expecting 40 to 50 people, and we had over 1,000 show up downtown,” said Emily Sherrer, the city’s historic preservation officer. “It showed us that Missoula wants this and wants more interpretive heritage tours and guidance through downtown. It was a missing thing.”
Most of those who have paid to take the Unseen Missoula tour have been local residents. Backers of the plan believe the local interest signaled a need for a more comprehensive effort, which led to the formation of a heritage committee.
A grant from the Montana Department of Commerce enabled members to contract Historical Research Consultants, based in Missoula, to write the plan. They worked with Dover, Kohl and Partners, which wrote the recent update to the city’s Downtown Master Plan, to ensure the two plans met on matters of history and heritage.
Implementing the recommendations in the new heritage plan will take time and teamwork.
“We’re approving a vision, a plan and a collection of good ideas,” said City Council president Bryan von Lossberg. “It really takes dedicated individuals, organizations and partnerships to go find the combination of funds and person hours and labor to get these things done.”
The plan begins by acknowledging that Missoula sits on the homelands of the Salish and Kalispell people. It also notes that other tribal peoples crossed the valley, including the Kootenai, Nez Perce and Blackfeet, among others.
Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition followed, as did Christopher Higgins and Francis Worden, who established the makings of a future city in 1860.
Capturing hundreds of years of history, culture and commerce proved to be a challenging task, as did tying it all together in what advocates envision as walkable map that promotes Missoula’s heritage.
The plan is “purposefully general” in offering recommendations. It presents ideas rather that specific details.
“The idea is not to reinvent the wheel, but to encourage collaboration among various organizations that already exist in downtown Missoula and already do these things,” said Jimmy Grant with Historical Research Consultants. “We really tried to narrow the scope of that in this plan. It follows the same basic footprint of the Downtown Master Plan.”
Interpreting the local heritage isn’t a new effort, those behind the plan have noted. Markers and monuments scattered across the district date back more than a century. They speak toward historic buildings, various landscapes and the city’s European history ranging from Lewis and Clark to Capt. John Mullan.
But the new heritage plan makes an obvious observation: the valley’s indigenous history has been largely overlooked. The plan aims to change that as funding and ideas emerge.
“I have read it and it’s incredibly comprehensive,” said City Council member Mirtha Becerra. “It’s also sensitive to the inclusion of our native communities, and it recognizes the urban forest as a component of our heritage. I see this as a blueprint for the interpretation of our heritage.”