2021 State of the Community: Missoula Renewed

April 12, 2021, City Club Missoula Video

Commissioner David Strohmaier

As some of you have heard me say before, and are probably sick of hearing me say it, whether you live in the city of Missoula or live outside the city limits, we are all residents of Missoula County—all 2,600 square miles of it. And as we think about the future, let’s never forget that the cultural landscape of our county extends back in time to the receding waters of glacial lake Missoula.

Put a pin in that.

This past year has challenged our community in really profound ways that none of us saw coming. Many of us grew up hearing stories from parents or grandparents of living through the Great Depression or World War II, of rationing and collective sacrifice. And while we’ve experienced moments of national trauma since then, many of those experiences have been from the comfort of armchairs, lacking the visceral, shared experience of the pandemic we’re still in. We’ve all lived it and breathed it.

Over the past year, we’ve borne witness to injustice and inequity in our society—even right here in Missoula County. We’ve been separated from loved ones in assisted living facilities, in some cases unable to hold their hands until the light has nearly departed from their eyes. None of us—and I repeat NONE OF US—have gone unscathed.

COVID-19 in Missoula County has brought out the best of folks; it’s also, regrettably, brought out some of the absolute worst, and there is no way to sugar coat that. As difficult as it is, we’ve got to hold both of these realities simultaneously. We absolutely must root out the callousness, indifference, bigotry and hate—personal and systemic—in our community. But let’s also recognize and celebrate the selflessness, beauty and generosity of so many. All in recognition that life is a fragile gift and that we have a choice to embrace life, and do so in a spirit of abundance rather than scarcity.

I believe the state of our community is strong, but it is oh so fragile.

Through it all, I remain optimistic, and am forever grateful to everyone in our community who’s stepped up during this past year to care for one another. It’s been an absolute joy (and, I might add, a hell of a lot of fun) working with Commissioners Slotnick and Vero, whose energy and optimism and creativity is a daily inspiration to me. To date, Missoula County has spent upwards of $20 million addressing the pandemic and associated impacts. Thanks to our Finance Department, and many others, we’ve navigated the federal requirements of the CARES Act and FEMA to cover these costs and avoid retrenchment or local taxpayers covering the financial burden.

My thanks go out to the entire Missoula County team in responding to the pandemic: the Office of Emergency Management, City-County Health Department, Partnership Health Center and first responders who have conducted contact tracing, testing and, now, vaccinations. The same could be said for all our community partners, from hospitals to non-profits to businesses to faith communities. And lest we fail to learn from this experience, we’ve worked with the University of Montana and Historical Museum at Fort Missoula and others to launch the Missoula County COVID-19 Documentation Project so that future generations understand our response to the pandemic.

Our 11 independently elected county officials, and their departments, have really pushed the envelope of creativity during this past year, from our Missoula County Attorney Office’s pretrial diversion program to our Missoula County Treasurer’s Office iSAM and Map Missoula electronic tools. Our IT staff supported remote work for upwards of a thousand users. And the list goes on. We even pulled off a major federal election during these unprecedented circumstances.

Faced with the reality that traditional shelters couldn’t operate at full capacity, we’re proud to have partnered with the United Way and Hope Rescue Mission to stand up the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, a success story that many thought was impossible. Housing remains an acute challenge for our community, which is why we’ve hired a housing coordinator and initiated the process to develop a housing plan for the county.

Our planning and grants staff have been doing double duty, pivoting from their pre-COVID work plan to spin up an emergency rental assistance program, relief fund, and small business job retention fund.

And then there’s the Sx͏ʷtpqyen Neighborhoods Master Plan and BUILD grant implementation, updating our zoning code, launching a Food Policy Advisory Board, planning for the future of our parks and open space, and figuring out how to coexist with fire on the landscape. Climate change has not abated, and neither has our commitment to mitigate and adapt to this global crisis through our 100% clean electricity goal, the Climate Ready Missoula Plan, and solarizing county facilities.

Because we didn’t just hit the pause button during the pandemic, we’re now ready to hit the accelerator as we round this bend. I can’t wait to see you at our rejuvenated fairgrounds this summer, the groundbreaking of the Rocky Mountain Exploration Center (where rumor has it, Jerry Marks will begin his second 50-year tour of duty with Missoula County!), and the opening of our flagship public library.

Finally, we believe that at least part of the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel might very well be . . . you guessed it . . . a passenger train! Last year, Missoula County spearheaded an effort to establish the first passenger rail authority in state history, which came to fruition in November when 12 counties, from Sanders to Wibaux, executed a joint resolution to establish the Authority. The bigger story, I believe, extends beyond rail: namely, it’s still possible to bridge the urban-rural, east-west, red-blue, and ideological divides that have split this state and nation apart.

Back to that thing I put a pin in earlier. Justice, equity, diversity and inclusion must be at the center of everything we do in this county, yet it’s an aspiration we have yet to fully realize. We’ve created a new Community Justice Department, and I’m excited to say that earlier this year we hired our first diversity coordinator, Jamar Galbreath. With the help of our county auditor, we’re reevaluating how even bone-dry procurement policies can be enlivened to address equity.

Before I wrap up, I’d like to share a short video (below), focusing on our strong collaboration with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and remembering that this place has a rich and deep heritage that carries into the future.

In the spirit of gratitude and thanks, I want to recognize the many years of service that Ellen Leahy has provided to the City-County Health Department, and welcome D’Shane Barnett as he assumes the health director role shortly.

The challenge before us, is what have learned? What will we remember? And how can we become more resilient and caring as a community?

Missoula County recognizes the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, remembering that this place has a rich and deep heritage that carries into the future.

Commissioner Dave Strohmaier presented at the April 11, 2021, State of the Community: Missoula Renewed, with City of Missoula Mayor John Engen and University of Montana President Seth Bodnar. Each year, City Club Missoula hosts the State of the Community, an up-close look at three major institutions that shape our community: the city, the county and the University of Montana. The full video is available on the City Club of Missoula’s website.

Missoula County Accepting Grant Applications to Support Services for At-Risk Populations, Substance Abuse Prevention 

A pink, purple and orange sunset background with shadows of children holding hands while walking in a line.

Missoula County opened grant applications March 30, for both the Community Assistance Fund and the Substance Abuse Prevention Mill Levy. Government and nonprofit organizations are encouraged to apply for funding, and applications will be available online at missoulacounty.us/fundingopportunities. The deadline for application submission is 3 p.m. Wednesday, May 12. The grant funding is for fiscal year 2022 (July 1, 2021-June 30, 2022).

“Missoula County plays a vital role in funding programs that meet identified community needs through the Community Assistance Fund and the Substance Abuse Prevention Mill Levy,” said Melissa Gordon, grants and community program manager. “The application process for both funds is extremely competitive, and proposals are carefully evaluated by citizen review committees and county staff. The application review committees take a global view of human services throughout Missoula County to ensure county-funded programs complement rather than duplicate existing services and are cost-effective and responsive to community needs.”

The Missoula Board of County Commissioners levies the Community Assistance Fund to provide human services and to establish a safety net or continuum of services to meet basic human needs. Projects awarded funding through the CAF serve at-risk populations at the most basic levels of food, shelter, medical care and emergency transportation.

The Community Assistance Fund has roots going back to 1877, when the Montana Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Montana created an act that directed county commissions to use taxes for a special fund to assist the poor by collecting annual bids for the “care, support and maintenance of the sick, poor and infirm of the county.” While many iterations of state law have occurred over the decades, it is this foundation that guides the work of the Community Assistance Fund review committee and ultimately the decisions by the county commissioners.

Missoula County voters approved the Substance Abuse Prevention Mill Levy in 2008 for the purpose of supporting prevention programs in Missoula County that help grow healthy youth and families and reduce the negative consequences and high costs of substance abuse. The mill levy provides $368,920 each year to support prevention programs in the county.

Applicants must demonstrate how they use effective strategies based on one or more of the following proven programs: a coalition that coordinates prevention efforts and community members to prevent substance abuse and its negative impacts on the citizens of Missoula County; community education about the risks and costs of abusing alcohol, tobacco and other drugs; supervised non-school hour activities that give young people alternatives to drug use and opportunities for positive youth development; and early intervention to help youth and families address alcohol, tobacco and other drug problems.

Missoula County Recognizes Place Names, Mullan Area and the Higgins Avenue Bridge

Horses graze in a field in the Sx͏ʷtpqyen area.

Missoula County and the City of Missoula acknowledge Missoula County is the homeland and aboriginal territories of the Salish and Kalispel people.

In recent years, we’ve made efforts to recognize and bring awareness to the history ingrained deep within Missoula County, memorializing past traditions, leaders and events that laid the foundational components of life as we know it today. This authentic honoring of an established friendship reconciling the impact of settler colonialism and elevating contemporary collaboration between Missoula County and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), is intended to inspire a lifelong relationship of respectful partnership.  

Missoula is expanding and developing, which presents an opportunity to recognize place names and honor the deep cultural landscape of this place. Two central projects are under construction: the Mullan Area and the bridge on Higgins Avenue. Led by Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, Missoula County met with the CSKT leadership and asked if they would be willing to provide appropriate place names for the locations being repaired and developed.  

After much research and thoughtful review, the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee submitted Sx͏ʷtpqyen (pronounced S-wh-tip-KAYN) as a place name for the Mullan Area development. Missoula County has been working with the City of Missoula on a joint master plan and form-based code to promote consistent and orderly development in this area. The result of this effort is the Sx͏ʷtpqyen Neighborhoods Master Plan and Traditional Neighborhood Development Form Based Code. A $13 million federal BUILD grant, secured in 2019, incentivized development of this cherished area, located on the western edge of the city limits, between Mullan Road and West Broadway, west of Reserve Street and east of the Missoula International Airport, which will help fund expansion and improve connectivity throughout Missoula.

Sx͏ʷtpqyen means a Place Where Something is Cut Off and Comes to a Point. “The area is located amid a rich cultural landscape for the Séliš and Ql̓ispé people,” the Culture Committee shared in their renaming proposal. “Before its recent transformation, most of the Missoula Valley was open prairie, rich in Speƛ̓m (bitterroots), and other food and medicinal plants, and maintained with the careful, regular application of fire by tribal people. The Missoula Valley as a whole was the most important and abundant bitterroot digging grounds in all the Séliš and Ql̓ispé people’s territories. This sacred plant is honored each year in the bitterroot ceremony, when tribal people gather to welcome the return of the ‘visitor’ — to pray for its well-being and abundance, and to express their gratitude for speƛ̓m and all the other plants that they will harvest through the coming months.” 

“Looking south of the planning area one can see a line of trees in the distance along the north side of Nmesulétk͏ʷ (the “middle” Clark Fork River). Prior to development, this riparian forest stood in sharp contrast to the surrounding grasslands. It was wedge-shaped, wider in the west and gradually tapering to a point in the east, somewhere in the vicinity of present-day Reserve Street.”

Four miles across the Missoula Valley, traffic is moving a bit slower through downtown as the bridge crossing the Clark Fork River on Higgins Avenue is under complete reconstruction. Missoula County and the City of Missoula recognized this reconstruction project as a meaningful time to name the bridge.

The Cultural Committee shared Beartracks Bridge as the appropriate name to honor the agonizing journey the Salish experienced as they crossed the river on their journey to the Jocko Valley after being exiled from their home in the Bitterroot Valley. The name honors “both the Vanderburg family and the Salish people as a whole,” as stated in the committee’s proposal.

“Beartracks is a name steeped in Salish history and culture,” the proposal states. “It is also of direct relevance to the site of the bridge itself, which figured prominently in one of the saddest episodes in our history – what is often called the Salish ‘Trail of Tears.’ In October 1891, the U.S. government forced some 300 Salish people to leave our Bitterroot Valley homeland and move north to the Flathead Reservation. To this day, that time is remembered with a deep sense of grief by our elders.”

During this arduous journey, Chief Charlo delegated sub-chief Louis Vanderburg, married to Mary Beartrack, to lead a group of the Salish tribe across the Clark Fork River, near or at the location of where Higgins Avenue now crosses. The name Beartracks Bridge was suggested as a tribute to the Vanderburg-Beartracks family legacy.

The Vanderburg-Beartracks family have continued to be prominent leaders, and their influence is respected by many. As shared by the Cultural Committee, “Louis’s son, Čicnmtú (Passing Someone on the Trail — Victor Vanderburg), was a prominent leader among the Salish who served on numerous delegations to Washington- D.C. under head chief Martin Charlo. In later life, Victor was married to prominent Salish cultural leader Čɫx͏ʷm̓x͏ʷm̓šn̓á (Sophie Moiese) for whom the Missoula County Commissioners named the public hearing room in the Missoula County Courthouse in 2018.”

Missoula County would like to thank the CSKT Tribal Council and the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee for their in-depth research and thoughtful selection of place names for these treasured landmarks in the Missoula Valley. The county recognizes Missoula is the homeland of the Confederated, Salish and Kootenai Tribes and will continue to acknowledge it as such.

To learn about ways Missoula County and CSKT are shaping tomorrow together, visit the links below:

Missoula County Seeking Nominations for Land Stewardship Award

Missoula County Community and Planning Services is now accepting nominations for the annual Land Stewardship Award. The award recognizes landowners and residents who are taking stewardship of land and water seriously and embarking on projects and practices that make a difference for land, water, forests, wildlife and communities.  

Community members and organizations are invited to nominate landowners and residents who are restoring, protecting or enhancing land and natural resources to ensure natural systems are maintained and strengthened. The nomination form is due Friday, April 30, and is available on the CAPS Open Lands website at http://missoula.co/stewardshipaward.  

The award program, through the leadership of the county’s Open Lands Citizens Advisory Committee, recognizes the critical role private landowners and residents play in resource conservation through their stewardship activities.  

Missoula County has presented the award annually since 2011 to show appreciation to tireless, voluntary stewards for the work they do to protect our lands. The county uses the recipients’ successes and challenges to highlight tools and programs landowners and residents can take advantage of to restore, enhance and protect land and water resources.  

The award has recognized previous recipients for their innovative and cooperative land management of forests, ranches and properties throughout the county. An interactive map highlighting past recipients is online at http://missoula.co/stewardshipmap.  

The Community and Planning Services Open Lands Program focuses on connecting communities, private landowners, local organizations and agencies with resources and opportunities to conserve the diverse mix of forests, grass lands, agricultural lands and water resources throughout Missoula County. More information about the Open Lands Program is online at http://missoula.co/openlandsprogram.

Missoula County Awards $46,000 in Grants to Community Centers and Parks

Residents throughout Missoula County will soon enjoy additional community center and outdoor recreation opportunities thanks to $46,000 in matching grants offered by Missoula County’s Parks, Trails and Open Lands Program

Grant funding requests represent the importance of community activities and the priority of shared resources throughout Missoula County. The Seeley Lake Lions Club, stewards of Missoula County’s Clearwater Park that has amenities including a skating pond, walking path and a picnic pavilion, will receive $16,988 to put in a playground, new benches, picnic tables, plantings and other improvements. 

The Potomac-Greenough Community Center will receive $10,365 to purchase a pre-K play structure for their playground. The remainder of the funds will be used for padding in the Potomac Greenough Community center gym, which is the primary recreation complex for the community.  

In Lolo, Travelers’ Rest State Park will receive $8,500 to construct an accessible spur trail, which will link the Bitterroot Trail to the park grounds and will include permanent art installations along the trail.  

Five other grants, which range from $1,300 to $2,700, will help fund maintenance projects to improve parks, trails and recreation areas through the Parks and Trails Matching Grants Program. They will help partner organizations fund the following projects in 2021:   

  • $1,369 to remove barbed-wire fencing and install new perimeter fencing at the Nine Mile Community Center (Nine Mile Community Center). 
  • $1,814 to help replace the roof on the picnic pavilion at the West Riverside Community Park (Friends of Two Rivers). 
  • $1,833 to help remove the volleyball court area and replace it with turf at Kelsey Park in Miller Creek (Upper Linda Vista HOA).  
  • $2,500 for site improvements, memorial plaques, a sheltered kiosk and a protective display at the Seeley Lake Veterans Memorial (Veterans and Families of Seeley Lake). 
  • $2,700 to expand and enhance the Seeley Lake Community Skating Rink by purchasing lights, lumber and a fire hose (Seeley Lake ROCKS).  

“While our grant partners have certainly felt impacts from COVID-19, we are encouraged by the large amount of applications received this year,” Parks and Trails Coordinator John Stegmaier said. “All signs point to communities across the county recognizing the importance of their recreation facilities and a willingness to spearhead improvement projects.”  

The Parks and Trails Matching Grant Program leverages partnerships with local nonprofits and community groups to maintain county parks and other public recreation areas. In these partnerships, the Parks, Trails and Open Lands Program provides planning assistance and funding, while the partner organization matches those funds through a combination of project expenses, in-kind donations and volunteer service hours.