While Missoula’s annual end of summer block party, River City Roots Festival, had to take a back seat this year due to COVID-19, downtown organizers have pivoted to a weeklong campaign encouraging Missoulians to celebrate the downtown community and support local businesses hit hard by the pandemic.
“Essentially we’re encouraging folks to take the energy and dollars that they would have spent at Roots Fest and disperse them into the community,” said Kristen Sackett, River City Roots Festival program director for the Downtown Missoula Partnership.
The organization has curated a weeklong schedule of activities and resources that Missoula individuals and families can use to get involved, from a virtual sidewalk sale to a massive chalk mural in Caras Park to a day-long river cleanup.
“The community really needs something positive right now, something to look forward to, something to inspire them that the community’s still here, life is still progressing,” Sackett said.
By the time news of coronavirus was starting to hit Montana in mid-March, the Downtown Missoula Partnership was in the throes of organizing River City Roots.
“We had a number of different bands under contract, and we had our call for artists, we had our vendors lined up, we had all of our sponsorships sold or mostly sold, so we had done quite a bit of leg work,” said Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Partnership.
Over the next three months, the case counts ticked up, and eventually organizers of Roots Fest realized the festival as it has been in the past could not take place.
“Things were changing so quickly and the health of the community is our number one priority,” Sackett said. “We just felt like we’ve got to call it, but let’s not give up.”
They came up with the concept of a safe, DIY community week where Missoulians could take advantage of what downtown has to offer on their own.
“When we started to kind of realize that we weren’t going to be able to have anything in person, we said, well what if we just shift it to a campaign where the theme is ‘Support Our Roots,’ so we’re keeping with the Roots Fest theme and then the roots of the community can be any number of things,” Sackett said.
Encouraging people to shop local even if they don’t feel safe heading downtown in person, the Partnership has created a virtual “Sidewalk Sale,” as well as a listing of local restaurants to support. They’re also spotlighting artists who’ve participated in Roots Fest in the past by promoting them on their website.
On Saturday, Aug. 29, the partnership has organized a socially distanced community art project called “Draw Your Roots” in Caras Park, where people can reserve a square to create a chalk art design. Organizers will have squares pre-drawn and will offer six hour-long time slots throughout the day to spread groups out.
“We look at it as being a mosaic of what your roots mean to you in an artistic form, so we’re really hoping that we can get a large turnout,” Sackett said, adding they’ll have more than 400 spots available, “so it could be huge.”
They’re hoping people will sign up for squares ahead of time, but they’ve reserved spots for Saturday walk-ups in case people want to join at the last minute.
In addition, the partnership’s Unseen Missoula team has created a limited edition guided walking tour focused on the history of Missoula’s past and present music venues.
“We’ll also land on West Main Street at one point and talk about Roots Fest so people can understand the history of the festival,” Sackett said.
Also taking place during Support Our Roots week is a performance from Mountain Line’s new Electric Stream Series, an in-bus live-stream concert.
And if you’re itching to relive old Roots Fest memories, The Trail will be playing live recordings from years past on Aug. 29 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and during Acoustic Brunch on Aug. 30 from 10 a.m. to noon.
Maybe the most rewarding activity of the weeklong campaign is the PaddleHeads’ River Cleanup closing out the week on Sunday, Aug. 30.
“Clark Fork Coalition wasn’t able to hold their usual spring cleanup, so I think it’s really important because I’m guessing the river has gotten even more use this year,” Sackett said.
McCarthy said Roots Fest has historically been the weekend the community welcomes University of Montana students to town, and facing an uncertain school year, the Partnership still wanted to make an effort to immerse them in downtown. Their staff has created more than 1,000 “Welcome to Missoula Downtown” packets that include information about local businesses and restaurants and a $5 gift card, which every new student will receive.
“Hopefully that kind of encourages them on their own to come spend money in the community and go explore their new home,” Sackett said.
The whole idea is to both celebrate downtown and support local business at a time when it’s needed most.
“Particularly with the loss of Grizzly football, we really want people to support our downtown businesses because we want them to be there a year from now. They speak to who we are as a community,” McCarthy said.
For more information and a full listing of activities and resources, visit missouladowntown.com/support-our-roots-week/.
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