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The Poverello Center is again abandoning a site for relocation at the request of Mayor John Engen.

With pressure from the Westside neighborhood, Engen reversed his support for the Poverello to purchase the Trail's End property on West Broadway. The mayor asked - and the shelter and soup kitchen agreed - to at least temporarily hold off on a purchase, the Poverello confirmed Tuesday.

"We need the whole community to buy into this, and if this process is what it takes to get the community to buy into it, we're all for it," said Kate Gadbow, Poverello board president, who said homelessness and hunger remain a need. "The other thing I want to remind people of, including the Westside neighbors, is this is not a problem that will go away just because they have told us to go away. It's a huge community issue."

The Poverello operates downtown out of a run-down house on Ryman Street, and the nonprofit has been searching for a new place to put its homeless shelter, kitchen and daytime Salcido Center. The change in direction this week is the third time the Pov goes back to the drawing board at the request of the mayor.

The fallout affects the neighborhood, the shelter, and the guidance Engen will offer the Poverello going forward.

"I made the mistake of assuming that this site, by virtue of its location and history, wouldn't affect residential neighborhoods," Engen said in a statement to neighbors. "I was wrong, and I've heard that loud and clear."

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Engen announced his decision in a statement during a neighborhood meeting Monday night. Councilwomen Cynthia Wolken and Pam Walzer delivered the message to their Westside constituents, and Wolken said Tuesday she was pleased to know more people would be included in conversations about the move.

"I think it's a positive thing in the end," said Wolken, who lives two blocks from the proposed site. "Obviously, we know the Pov has to go somewhere, but we can be part of a larger conversation as to where."

The news had some neighbors "cautiously optimistic" and ready to help the organization find an appropriate location. Jed Little said he had been disappointed in the mayor at first, but he also trusts Engen and remained hopeful of a better outcome.

"We for the first time feel like the mayor is hearing our concerns and is taking them into consideration, and that's very heartening," said Little, a parent and Westside resident.

Allison McKnight, a parent and president of the Lowell School PTA, said the message the group successfully drove home is the mayor and Poverello must take the concerns of residents into account.

She said one positive outcome is the controversy renewed neighborhood pride, and neighborhood leaders emerged. The issue has Westside residents banding together to research and help the Poverello come to a decision that's best for the entire community.

"We really did want to move in a positive motion, forward," McKnight said. "We can't just sit around and stomp our feet."

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The conversation will continue, but it will be more inclusive and more open.

Engen admitted he erred when he didn't take the neighborhood into account, and he agreed being transparent will improve future discussions.

"What I will confess to all day long is that it did not occur to me, honestly did not occur to me, that razing the Trail's End and replacing it with a well-designed, well-run Poverello would be a concern to the residential neighborhood. And it should have (occurred to me). West Broadway is part of the Northside-Westside neighborhood plan," Engen said.

He also said he made a mistake when he advised the Poverello to first secure a site and then talk with neighbors. At the time, his rationale was that the conversation could be about something tangible.

"Clearly, the neighbors see that as, ‘You're doing this to us rather than doing this with us,' " Engen said. "And that's a problem. So I think that was an error in judgment on my part. And the Pov to its credit continues to work with me on this. We have agreed that we'll slow down and have another look."

To help the community discussion, Engen said he has called the National Coalition Building Institute. NCBI Missoula's mission includes resolving conflict in communities in order to strengthen them.

He said some people question why the mayor of Missoula is taking the lead on the relocation of a nonprofit. He works with many nonprofits, including the Poverello, although it's not obligated to follow his lead.

"I'd like to think that with my help as a person who I hope represents the larger community working with the Pov, we'll have a better product than if they go it alone," Engen said.

***

The pullback puts pressure on the shelter, but Poverello board president Gadbow said she doesn't believe the mayor led the organization astray.

"I think it was hard for him in a way to reverse himself, but ... I think he was keeping in mind those parts of our funding that are dependent on a wide variety of Missoula citizens' goodwill," Gadbow said.

She said she wants to proceed with more support from the community as well as backing from sister nonprofits. And she placed responsibility on neighbors to help.

"Because they have stopped this process - which we thought the location was pretty good - it's up to them to help us find a better one. And we hope they'll be as active in finding us a solution as they have been in identifying the problem," Gadbow said.

She said board members present during a building committee meeting agreed to the mayor's request to seek an extension of the buy-sell agreement.

"We hope it's for a very short period of time because we stand to lose some long-established funding if we don't find a site," Gadbow said.

The Poverello is under a use-it-or-lose-it fall deadline for a $500,000 federal grant. It had planned to close on the purchase of the West Broadway site by July 1.

Engen said a Pov representative will be asking the bank that owns the foreclosed property for an extension on the buy-sell. Mountain West Bank President John Seeberger said Tuesday a contract amendment is possible, but he hadn't held conversations with anyone about the deal and the original agreement still stood.

"They've got a contract to buy it from us," Seeberger said.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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