When Macy’s Inc. shut its doors in early 2010 and vacated the Mercantile in downtown Missoula, it left the city with high hopes that a new occupant would quickly fill the historic property, which has played a diverse role in the decades since it opened in 1877.

But more than four years after Macy’s departure, the building sits empty, its windows pockmarked with fading public announcements. A few pieces of art are displayed in the street-side windows where finely dressed mannequins once stood, and where sweet perfumes once lured shoppers.

Yet beyond the panels of art lies years of dust and lingering questions of what comes next. Will retail shops eventually settle in? Will the Missoula Public Library take over the site, or will a world-class Montana Museum of Art and Culture eventually fill the cavernous space with works by Pablo Picasso, Robert DeWeese and Rembrandt van Rijn?

“We know that whatever goes in there, we want it to activate Higgins Avenue and activate the street front, and be a draw for downtown,” said Brent Campbell, board president of the Missoula Downtown Association. “A lot of people are concerned about a loss of tax base downtown.”

While interest in the building is reportedly high, the Missoula Public Library may be leading the charge in its efforts to occupy the property – a move that will likely hinge on the results of architectural drawings and engineering reports.

Honore Bray, the library’s director, said the current building was constructed for a 30-year lifespan, though it’s now going on 40 years old. A library board meeting is planned for April 23, one that’s expected to reveal the Mercantile’s potential as a new library, and push the board’s efforts in one direction or another.

“The architects are taking information from the study to see if it would all fit into the Mercantile building,” said Bray. “Until we get the drawings done, we have no idea if we’ll fit. We have to think about growth and expansion, and we’ve completely outgrown our existing facility.”

In 2011, the library launched a feasibility study to explore its needs and potential for growth. In doing so, it looked to other communities for insight, including Boulder, Colo., which had a comparable population at the time of the study.

The findings suggested the Missoula Public Library needs 130,000 square feet of space to operate well into the future. The Mercantile, however, offers 113,000 square feet.

“We’d be looking at an addition over the parking lot to gain that extra square footage,” Bray said of the Mercantile. “We’d need to see if the floors are strong enough to support the book stacks. The structural engineers need to figure out if that would work or not. We don’t want to build something or remodel something that’s not going to last the community for many, many years.”

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Other organizations in the community also are looking for a new home, including the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the University of Montana.

The museum holds more than 11,000 pieces in its permanent collection, and many believe a top-notch facility could stand among the best in the nation.

But for now, the museum stores its precious art in many ill-suited locations across campus. When it is displayed, the work is relegated to two rather small gallery rooms in the PAR/TV building, making it impossible to put more pieces on show.

It’s for those reasons and more that the museum’s interest in the Mercantile has been rumored, but not confirmed. University officials have declined to discuss their plans for the museum in any detail, including its future location.

“We do not have any active discussions going on regarding the Mercantile,” said Peggy Kuhr, the university’s vice president of integrated communications. “That’s all I can say at this time.”

While the university remains tight-lipped about its goals for the museum, it has left a trail of evidence pointing to forward momentum. President Royce Engstrom in March asked the state Board of Regents for authorization to spend $10 million in private money to fund the construction of a new museum.

“We’re embarking on a fundraising effort to build or buy some sort of structure that will serve as the MMAC,” Engstrom told regents. “There’s some exciting potential out there that could develop very quickly. We want the authority to go forward as we bring in the money.”

Engstrom told regents that fundraising could present exciting possibilities in the near future. Around that time, MMAC officials also left for San Francisco, and are expected to announce a significant donor toward the end of the month.

But with so little information coming from the university, those beyond campus have been left to speculate on MMAC’s vision, along with the Mercantile’s future.

Campbell said the Missoula Downtown Association’s top wish is to see the Mercantile occupied, though he believes a museum would fit nicely in the location and serve as a tourism draw.

“A museum at that location has been rumored for some time,” said Campbell. “MMAC has a fantastic collection that needs to be displayed. I think it would be a draw like the Museum of the Rockies is in Bozeman.”

Campbell also suggested that a modern library could enhance the location. He added, however, that MDA won’t interfere with private property decisions, regardless of who steps forward to purchase the building.

“I don’t know if we’d take a position on a private property deal,” said Campbell. “We simply want to activate the street fund, support the community and the tax base, and encourage investment consistent with the downtown master plan.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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