Whether she’s at the mall, stopping in to a movie on Reserve Street, or hiking in the North Hills, Laurie Johnson gets the same line from inquiring Missoulians:
“You’re that downtown lady, aren’t you?”
Well, not anymore. After more than a decade as Missoula’s Downtown Ambassador, Johnson retired Friday, turning in her key ring and Business Improvement District-branded jacket.
But the next time a visiting parent is lost downtown, someone struggles with the new parking meters, a dog is left in a hot car or a panhandler needs to move on, Johnson might still be the one to help.
“It’s going to take a little bit to get out of work mode,” she said.
That familiar mode involved daily rounds on foot from Madison Street to the Poverello Center, the railroad tracks to Hellgate High School south of the river, all with an eye on helping whoever looked in need.
Johnson, who started in 2007, was just the third person to hold the fledgling position of downtown ambassador, according to Missoula Downtown Association Executive Director Linda McCarthy.
“She stayed longer than anyone did. And it’s not an easy job,” McCarthy said. “It’s probably something that gets a little boring after a while.”
McCarthy’s been with the MDA since 1999 and has seen the city’s approach to downtown shift, with the addition of the Business Improvement District and Missoula Downtown Foundation.
Johnson’s been a constant through those changes, always approachable and helpful; a model face for downtown.
“She’s just been one of those true, committed people,” McCarthy said. “A true public servant.”
Being the downtown ambassador requires a mixture of hospitality, and safety and security consciousness, Johnson said, which keeps her on her toes.
“No day is the same as another,” she said. “I’ve done everything from pushing cars out of snow banks to helping find lost dogs.”
Johnson’s also a liaison with the many groups that occupy downtown. She helps business owners and police, homeless people and new students.
When a business owner wants to remove a panhandler, but doesn’t feel it’s quite to the level of calling 911, that’s when the downtown ambassador gets a call.
“I’ve learned a lot just because people have asked things that I have to look up,” she said.
For example: it’s not actually illegal to bike on the sidewalk, and street musicians fall under the same laws as panhandlers, though Johnson admitted, “they are providing a service -- if they’re good.”
Her husband, Jim, is a school resource officer at Hellgate High School and serves as a bicycle officer during the summer.
One day she was dealing with an irate man who was swearing, really letting her have it, before suddenly turning polite. Johnson glanced behind her and noticed Jim had biked up moments earlier.
That police courtesy extends to other officers. Johnson said she’s noticed patrol cars slowing as they pass her, to make sure whoever she’s talking to isn’t being abusive.
That sort of police presence, along with a dedicated officer for the BID, is part of an overall push to make downtown more comfortable and safe, Johnson said.
“People in general feel safer; I think businesses are feeling better,” she said.
One area she’s seen greatly improve is homelessness, though Johnson acknowledged there’s a long way to go.
A plan to end homelessness is done in three ways, she said: providing help for people in need, upping law enforcement through manpower and ordinances, and public education on best ways to help.
“We’ve made ground on all three fronts,” Johnson said. “It’s a different thing to completely take care of those needs, but I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
Johnson’s own struggle with bipolar disorder is detailed in her 2011 book “I Am Laurie: How Bipolar Disorder Altered My Life.”
The experience of dealing with her own mental illness informed the way she views those who make downtown alleys and doorways their home, Johnson said.
“I’m a fortunate one,” she said. “I just happen to be really motivated to be healthy and have opportunities that they didn’t have.”
Those differences became starkly defined when two homeless people died within a month of each other — individuals Johnson talked with on a daily basis and whose regular corner spots still remind her of their absences.
“That was hard,” she said. “Even though you’re not crazy about how they’re living, you’re still impacted by them.
The biggest struggle with working downtown, Johnson said, is the knowledge that there are so many people who need help, but sometimes it’s impossible to do anything.
While it’s certainly safer, Johnson said the other way she’s seen downtown change is in scope.
The Poverello’s move onto West Broadway stretched her borders and the new Riverfront Triangle public plaza and trails will likely stretch them again.
Businesses have come and gone, though storefronts remain occupied. All except the Mercantile, that is.
“I stood and watched for a while the other day. That was sort of bittersweet to me,” Johnson said.
The 56-year-old grew up in Missoula and remembers the decades of stores that passed through the historic building.
“That’s a spot that needs to have activity, needs to be alive,” she said.
After retirement, Johnson’s immediately been contracted to babysit her grandkids, ages two to five, and she plans to see another set of grandkids in Arizona soon after.
She’s going to keep running, though scaling down her races to 5ks and the occasional half-marathon.
She and Jim hope to take the boat out more often than the single summer trip they made last year.
The events that spurred her retirement — a death and illnesses of close friends and family in the last year — helped her realize she wanted to spend more time with her loved ones.
In short, Johnson’s retirement, if it could be called that —“I am not a person that just sits and does nothing,'' she said — will be much like how she described her work as a downtown ambassador.
“No day is the same as another.”