Downtown Missoula is without question a thriving commercial and community hub today, a stark contrast from decades ago, and that transformation is thanks in no small part to Linda McCarthy.
McCarthy recently hit the 20-year milestone as executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association and its umbrella organization, the Downtown Missoula Partnership. She was honored at the organization’s annual awards banquet and membership meeting on Jan. 16. Several speakers spoke of downtown Missoula's reawakening from empty stores to the bustling economic engine it has become.
Tim France, the longtime owner of the iconic Worden’s Market and Deli in downtown Missoula, calls her the “angel of downtown.” France told the packed house at the DoubleTree Hotel about how much McCarthy has meant for the community.
“I call her a guardian angel,” he said. “She wrapped her arms around downtown as if it was her own. I feel comfort and feel safer knowing somebody is looking out for downtown, and I’ve always felt that way with Linda in the helm. She never made a decision without first considering how it would affect the beloved downtown.”
Tim and Exie France bought Worden’s Market in 1981, but they saw many businesses shutter in the area because Southgate Mall was in full swing.
Scott Sproull, the longtime owner of Hide & Sole downtown, said he remembers blocks of empty storefronts downtown.
"You could have your pick," he said, recalling how many "for sale" signs there were when he was choosing a downtown location.
When McCarthy took over the helm of the Downtown Association two decades ago, she had her work cut out for her and made sure to meet with all the business owners.
“After 40 minutes, I was extremely optimistic,” France recalled. “I was pretty sure we had the right person for the job, and I think we’ve been proven right on that in spades.”
France recalled how McCarthy and her staff more than doubled the membership of the Downtown Association in just a few years. He pointed to McCarthy’s leadership in making the signature downtown events like the River City Roots Festival, the Parade of Lights, Out to Lunch, Downtown Tonight and the brewfests as successful as they are today. He noted that she was instrumental in the creation of the Downtown Business Improvement District and the Downtown Master Plan process, both big reasons why the district is thriving today. Missoula’s downtown has seen hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial projects over the past two decades and is now a hot spot for everything from new restaurants to retail stores to plans for huge new performing arts venues.
“People talk of Linda’s legendary efficiency,” France said. “She leaves no stone unturned to enhance downtown. She hires quality people, and they get work done.”
He also pointed out that the downtown area was Missoula’s first Urban Renewal District and benefited from Tax Increment Financing.
“All of the blight was remediated through the efforts of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency because they would help property owners preserve and protect the historic facades,” he said. “They also helped us buy down interest when we had to restore and remodel. We did that three times. That came and went and after the (Urban Renewal District) sunsetted after 20 years, things had dressed up pretty good, the storefronts were looking good and we might have a chance, it looked like.”
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Julie Weaver worked for McCarthy from 2004 and was the assistant director when she left in 2011 for a job in Texas.
“Linda just has a passion for Missoula and a passion for downtown,” Weaver said. “She also has a passion for working with and mentoring young people as well. I was in my early 20s when I started, and the amount I learned from her is just tremendous. I learned the kinds of things you only learn on the job from a true mentor.”
Weaver described the work as “varied and complicated.”
“They expect a lot of different things,” she recalled. “We work on everything from event planning to helping small businesses to other, more serious things like helping the homeless and helping shape policies that help with the future of downtown.”
With the Downtown Master Plan process, Weaver said Linda not only worked on that but helped raise funds to make it happen.
“It was 99 percent Linda pulling that thing through,” Weaver said. “A lot of people also worked hard on it, but she’s got vision and passion, and the fact that 20 years later she still has it is amazing. Missoula has been through so much now and seen so many changes, and to see a resurgent Missoula downtown with restaurants and retail and hotels is amazing.”
McCarthy was surprised to be honored at the annual awards banquet and said it was the people around her who helped her get through the tough times.
“I feel very fortunate to work here with the best people in our community,” she said. “Hundreds of entrepreneurs and people who are incredibly passionate about our downtown. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen with one person. It’s a village.”
She asked current or former board members and employees to stand up, and scores of people in the room rose to their feet.
“I’m so grateful for my village,” McCarthy said. “My village helped me survive a year-long battle with cancer, the loss of our son Samuel in 2009, and the raising of our daughter, Madelyn, who is now 18 and ready to launch. I feel so fortunate and lucky. Thank you.”
Weaver said she admired McCarthy’s ability to weather the storm.
“The woman has strength that I don’t know where it comes from,” she said. “That she was really able to stay on top of her responsibilities and keep managing was tremendous with so much to deal with there. She was so strong at work and was focused there, but she was also focused at home and was able to do both.”
Weaver said McCarthy brings a sense of “family” to the Downtown Partnership.
“She was there for us when we needed her, and we were there for her when she needed us,” Weaver said. “She’s also had a tremendous board of directors and a great staff over the years. You don’t really see that sense of community and support, that comes from the downtown Missoula area, in other cities.”