Within the last year, no fewer than four downtown Missoula businesses have opened up second locations in the Midtown area, which roughly includes the Brooks Street corridor: Bridge Pizza, The Trailhead, The Dram Shop and Notorious P.I.G. Barbecue.
“What that says is Midtown is vibrant,” said Mark Bellon, president of the Missoula Midtown Association. “It says that Midtown is accommodating and it has all the amenities for a successful business community. And we have parking. That’s our tagline.”
In fact, it was a lack of parking downtown that prompted Trailhead owner Todd Frank to refurbish a giant, 14,000-square-foot warehouse on Garfield Street near the mall and turn it into Trailhead River Sports.
“I started looking as a way to expand the business when the (managers of the Holiday Inn Downtown) came over and told me they were going to gate their lot,” Frank explained.
The hotel owns all the parking spots behind the Trailhead’s downtown location. With the new ROAM Student Housing and the new Marriott Hotel opening up, the hotel decided it could no longer let its lot be used by non-customers. So, Frank was left without a place for people to load rafts and other boats. Midtown looked like an enticing option, and he bought the warehouse from the Lambros family.
He applied for and received $50,000 worth of Façade Improvement Program funding from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency to install huge glass windows in one corner of the warehouse. Now, he says it’s one of the largest and most complete river sports showrooms in the entire Pacific Northwest, if not in the country. Frank says he orders boats and supplies in bulk, which means he can have a lot of inventory on hand for people who want to save on shipping costs.
“We have a strange advantage over online businesses because the margins are very low and the freights are very high,” he explained.
They rent all kinds of watercraft, everything from giant whitewater rafts to 3.5-pound packrafts for backpacking to high mountain lakes. And now that they have ample parking and loading space, and they’ll focus on boat repair in the winter.
“There’s really nowhere else in the Pacific Northwest that does boat repair,” he said. “NRS does some at their facility in Moscow, Idaho, but you gotta get your boat there. If you ship your boat anywhere, you know, it’s $150. … Interestingly, freight is a huge issue in this business.”
Frank said the Midtown area, like downtown, is showing good growth and he’s happy to be a part of that resurgence.
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Bellon said the Midtown Association has grown from four members to now approaching 60 members. At their last Midtown Mixer at the new Dram Shop by the mall, more than 100 people showed up.
“There’s room to grow out here,” he said. “We have the Fairgrounds, we have an amazing trail system and there’s some potential for more planning for pedestrian connections. We have some real innovative ideas and concepts to increase the functionality of Midtown and make it nicer for residents and businesses.”
The Midtown Association’s stated mission is to promote healthy businesses, quality of life and quality of place, he added.
“We rallied around support of Tax Increment Financing districts,” he said. “That was a funding mechanism that put some pedestrian facilities and parks in place that are nice for employees, business and residents in our area.”
The Association has also facilitated public meetings with residents and businesses to develop a master plan for the area. They and other groups raised $200,000 for a traffic study, and the findings should be released soon and will be presented to the public.
“We’re also in support of upgrades to the Fairgrounds,” Bellon said. “We’re here to be the voice of businesses and residents. We’ve been around a while, but we’re starting to get some momentum and build membership and increase the voice of our residents and businesses."
And more voices means more power to shape city policy.
"And we can take that voice to the City Council to support things we want and voice our opposition to things that we don’t think are in our interest," Bellon said.
Frank bought the Trailhead in 2000 and now has three locations in town, including one inside the mall called T9, which is geared toward women.
"I'm at about one expansion per decade," he said. "We're happy with our growth. I like to interact with our customers and help them find what they want and what they need and do the things they enjoy."