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 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:

Agencies to Host Listening Session on Temporary Safe Outdoor Space

The local agencies and organizations that have partnered to stand up Missoula’s Temporary Safe Outdoor Space will hold a listening session this week to share how the project is going and to answer questions and address any concerns from community members.

The virtual forum will take place from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4, via Microsoft Teams. Members of the public and news media can join the session using the following information:

Microsoft Teams meeting
Click here to join the meeting on your computer or mobile app
Or call in (audio only) +1 406-272-4824
Phone Conference ID: 940 454 833#

The listening session will feature Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County; Eric Legvold, director of impact at United Way; Jim Hicks, executive director of Hope Rescue Mission; and April Seat, the Mission’s director of outreach. County officials, including the three commissioners, will also attend the forum and answer questions as needed.

The TSOS is a safe, healthy, secure area on private land, staffed 24/7, that is currently supporting 24 unsheltered people during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is being offered during the public health emergency because no local providers of food, shelter or services are able to operate at full capacity. It is a project of United Way and Hope Rescue Mission with logistical support through Missoula County.

Since the space opened in mid-December on private land just south of Missoula, staff have already helped TSOS residents connect to regular case management services; acquire identification documents, such as photo IDs and birth certificates, that are often needed to secure housing and employment; and obtain employment, housing or housing vouchers. Officials will provide more details on TSOS operations during the listening session.

The costs to set up the temporary space are being reimbursed through federal CARES Act money, so no local taxpayer dollars are involved. United Way and Hope Rescue Mission continue to seek additional funding to sustain the site through the end of the county’s emergency declaration adopted last March in response to the pandemic. An FAQ about the project can be found online at missoula.co/tsos.

Missoula County to Award COVID-19 Job Retention Grants to 27 Local Businesses

Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday approved distribution of $624,738 from the COVID-19 Small Business Job Retention Fund to 27 local businesses impacted by the pandemic to help them retain jobs for low- to moderate-income employees.  

Of the grants awarded, 58% went to businesses in the food and drink industry, for a total distribution of $365,000. Twelve percent went to retail businesses, 10% to professional services, 10% to preschool/childcare, 6% to transportation and the remaining 4% to businesses in the lodging industry.  

The 27 recipients experienced an average 45% decline in revenue since the beginning of the pandemic and had to lay off 158 employees. Without the grant funding, it is projected there would be another 166 layoffs in the first three months of 2021. 

“Demand for the funds was overwhelming,” said Melissa Gordon, program manager for Grants and Community Programs. “While the county isn’t able to provide assistance to every business in need, I am hopeful the program will provide the support necessary for grant recipients to retain employment opportunities and stay afloat until the new federal assistance becomes available.”   

In total, the county received 126 applications requesting $2.875 million in funding. The application portal opened at 9 a.m. Dec. 10, and it only took a few hours for the amount of funding requested to exceed the amount available. Applications were considered on a first-come, first-served basis. 

The grants are supported through the Community Development Block Grant Economic Development Revolving Loan Fund, which are federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds intended to stimulate economic development by providing loans and/or grants to create or retain jobs for low- and moderate-income people. Low- to moderate-income is defined as individuals or families whose household income is up to 80% of the median income for the area when adjusted for family size.  

With the sunsetting of current state and federal COVID-19 assistance programs and the slow winter season just around the corner, commissioners allocated a portion of the available CDBG funds to provide working capital grants to help retain jobs and reduce the significant fiscal impact COVID-19 has had on small businesses and the Missoula workforce. 

Missoula County elected officials: We must work together to ensure justice for all

Protest
Protesters gather at the Missoula County Courthouse in May.

On May 25, 2020, our nation witnessed the horror of George Floyd dying with a police officer’s knee pressed into his neck. Mothers everywhere, from Minneapolis to Maine to Missoula, winced hearing a dying man call to his own.

This act is but a snapshot of hundreds of years of oppression. Much of the United States was built on stolen land with stolen labor, and these centuries old crimes still echo today, across generations. As your Missoula County elected officials, we share a vision of a just future, yet do not pretend to know the exact path forward.  Though some of us have faced discrimination, we have all benefited from structural racism. Much of our knowledge of racial injustice comes from shared stories rather than personal experiences.  Nonetheless, we are committed to amplifying and including the voices of those who do understand.

We embrace the right to peacefully protest, encourage our citizens to exercise their right to peacefully assemble and speak their minds, without violence. Across the country people from every walk of life are saying — loud and clear — ENOUGH.  We hear you and agree with you.

We are willing to listen and to take further action.  Some of the steps we’ve made to examine and address inequality in our local criminal justice system include rolling out our comprehensive jail diversion plan, launching our prosecution-led diversion program and reforming our pre-trial system.  We’ve invited the National Native Children’s Trauma Center to inform criminal justice employees of the devastating impacts of historical trauma of Native people and teach us the practice of cultural humility. As a county government, we’re proud of our relationship with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. We are committed to understanding why American Indians are disproportionately represented in detention and what additional steps we can take to address historical injustices.

We have people working exclusively on equity issues in our public health department and at the Partnership Health Center clinic. And we understand all our work must be considered through an equity lens. Even so, inequality persists and we must address it now.

There is a lot of work to be done and, as your elected officials, we shoulder the burden of change. This work must be perpetual, so we are making a sustained commitment. We expect that you will hold us to account and appreciate your involvement. Please join us in this effort.

Over the course of the past two weeks, in the midst of violence and devastation, we also saw unlikely alliances and witnessed acts of unprecedented solidarity and kindness: the organizer of a conservative rally invited a Black Lives Matter activist to the stage; law enforcement professionals denounced the actions of racist officers; a sheriff and his deputies responding to a call for security, instead joined the march with protesters; a stalwart row of blue uniforms in Texas took a knee in honor of those who’ve been slain and those who marched.

Robert Kennedy said each time a person “stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Let’s keep working together — starting with ripple —  so that the tragic events of last month mark the end of the long night of injustice for people of color in our community and signal a new day, one that honors the legacy of George Floyd, and all who came before him, by implementing — not just promising — justice for all.

Signed,

Alex Beal, Missoula County Justice of the Peace
Dave Strohmaier, Missoula County Commissioner
David Wall, Missoula County Auditor
Erin Lipkind, Missoula County Superintendent of Schools
Josh Slotnick, Missoula County Commissioner
Juanita Vero, Missoula County Commissioner
Kirsten Pabst, Missoula County Attorney
Landee Holloway, Missoula County Justice of the Peace
Shirley Faust, Missoula County Clerk of Court
TJ McDermott, Missoula County Sheriff
Tyler Gernant, Missoula County Clerk and Treasurer

*A version of this post was also submitted to several area news organizations