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Bob Snodgrass wants to move Bob's Sew Vac & Janitorial out of downtown Missoula.

Since April 21, Snodgrass has kept a log of crude - and illegal - activity near his shop at 120 W. Broadway. He and his employees have witnessed transients sleeping in "Hell's Alley" behind the shop and people exchanging drug baggies for money.

"The situation seems to be every year getting a little bit worse," said Snodgrass, whose shop has been in operation there since 1990. "This year, with the warm weather (a few weeks ago), it was shaping up to be really bad."

This year also will be the first real test of Missoula's beefed-up laws related to the aggressive and unsavory behavior Snodgrass and others witness, actions that traditionally pick up when warm weather blows in a wave of transients. So far, the number of downtown panhandling calls are up - but heightened police patrols have kicked off, too, even as shrinking city coffers led the chief of police to suggest shaving down the force in the year ahead.

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In response to complaints from business owners, the Missoula City Council last year took on quality of life - and sometimes the lack of it - downtown.

One new law bans panhandlers from heckling, touching or following those they solicit, and it prohibits panhandling in some places such as near ATMs. Another amended ordinance made it unlawful for people to lie or sleep on a sidewalk within 12 feet of a building entrance, street or alley - or block more than half of a public right-of-way, such as a sidewalk.

So far this year, aggressive panhandling reports are up compared with last year. According to data from the Office of Emergency Services, the number of complaints coded as panhandling from January through April nearly doubled.

In 2009, Emergency Services counted 17 calls the first four months of the year. This year, it tallied 32 over the same period. The data, available at Missoulian.com, accounted for calls in an area between the Clark Fork River and the railroad tracks, Eastgate Shopping Center to Orange Street, and also along the West Broadway and Toole Street corridor.

The calls represent just one slice of the reports of disturbances downtown. Because such things are hard to isolate, the calls do not include all reports of collective quality-of-life matters, such as people urinating on shop doors or sleeping in entryways. The log also does not include "pedestrian interference" calls, as there is no code assigned to that problem.

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Last year, police argued they needed changes in the law to tackle the problems. They couldn't tell people not to sprawl across the sidewalk, say, since doing so was within their rights - even if they were blocking pedestrians.

Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir said this year police already are sending rude downtowners the message that poor behavior won't be tolerated in the city center. When the first spell of warm weather hit, Muir said the cops blitzed downtown.

"We seized a lot of vodka bottles and poured out a lot of open containers," he said. "We made them feel genuinely unwelcome to behave badly in the downtown area."

That all might sound good to folks who don't want drunks badgering them for money on Higgins Avenue, but Muir said the problems don't - and didn't - go away. Instead, they moved.

"Well, about three days later, a few people were commenting about how great it seemed downtown. And what they were unaware of was the fact the problem had just moved about six blocks either direction from downtown," Muir said. "So now people were panhandling by the Safeway on West Broadway or out by the Madison (Street) and Broadway area. So to some extent, extra enforcement efforts have a tendency to sort of move problems around."

He said resources are always a challenge. One idea in the works is for the Business Improvement District to pay for a downtown police officer. Muir said he's turning in a budget proposal for 99 police in the coming fiscal year instead of 102 and expects to rein in the force with attrition.

Enforcement is ongoing - and Muir said all officers are encouraged to spend time out of their cars downtown. And, the summer months bring more police attention downtown. The week after high school graduation, the bicycle patrol will begin, Muir said. Also, four University of Montana interns wearing "soft uniforms," khakis and polos, will monitor parks and trails for the department. Another police officer may walk the downtown beat, too.

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Some businesses report improvements since a group of 21 business people talked this year with Mayor John Engen about the difficulties of running shops downtown.

"I see a police car going down the alley a lot more often," said Rhonda Davis, who owns Yellowstone Photo.

Davis said her shop caters to families who want pictures of their birthday parties, new babies and first days at school. It's hard to figure out how much effect the hostile panhandlers - or hostile anyone - might have on a business compared with the lagging economy or construction. But Davis said she's heard many stories from customers displeased with the environment in the city center.

"We've lost a lot of our family customers because they don't come downtown anymore," Rhonda said.

The foot patrol - and preferably an officer dedicated to the downtown area - is a strategy she and neighbor Red Rooster Trading Co. support.

Owner Kim Arnot said she believes transients have been more of a nuisance to the Red Rooster than responsible for taking away business. She also said police have been attentive this year when Red Rooster calls.

"Since we wrote the letter to the mayor, we've had almost an excellent response," Arnot said.

That doesn't mean problem activities disappear altogether. Red Rooster's Heather Hammond sometimes isn't even finished closing up shop before encountering unwanted guests making themselves at home in the entryway.

"Sometimes, even before I'm gone, people are filling it up with their bodies," Hammond said.

Downtowners also police each other's businesses. Hammond said she learned a colleague at the Runner's Edge witnessed a man exit The Oxford one morning, vomit on Red Rooster's door, and walk back into the bar and restaurant.

The Runner's Edge owner marched into The Ox and told the man to get a bucket and mop up the mess he'd made. Hammond heard the story after she had walked into work. As she tells it, the man who vomited tried to get out of cleanup duty, but the business owner didn't let him off the hook.

"I have the flu."

"I don't care what you have. Get a bucket. Clean it up."

Some downtowners point to The Ox as one source of the problems downtown and hope the business will be a part the solution, too. The bar's owner did not return requests for comment by the Missoulian.

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Snodgrass, who wants to pick up and move if and when finances permit, said he has multiple reasons for wanting to leave the downtown and perhaps head to a building along the Brooks Street corridor. But he started looking at property in earnest after the "unsavory" behaviors reached a head.

The tipping point came a couple of years ago when a customer walked into his store with her daughter and told him they saw a couple having sex in the alley as they tried to make their way into the shop.

"She came in my store scared to death. I can't tell you I've ever seen her again," Snodgrass said.

The recent downtown murder happened in "Hell's Alley," and on a busy night to boot. Snodgrass has been keeping a log of the illicit activities he sees in the alley to report them to city officials. View a copy at MissoulaRedTape.com.

Snodgrass employs three full-time people, and would like to install security lights while he's still in the downtown. Even with its problems, though, he said many people remain optimistic about the heart of Missoula.

"Amazingly, people still support the downtown strongly," Snodgrass said.

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

 

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