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Missoula diversifies

In a city surrounded by scenic mountains at the convergence of three rivers, including one that runs through downtown, and within 100 miles of seven wilderness areas, you would expect outdoor recreational opportunities to abound.

And they do in Missoula, Mont., with its post card location. “There are significant outdoor recreational opportunities,” said Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association. “There is lots of skiing, hiking, bicycling, kayaking, fly fishing.”

However, many visitors to the city in the heart of northwestern Montana’s Glacier Country are surprised at its cultural diversity and vibrancy.

“We have so many cultural events, people who are not from here are often times surprised,” said McCarthy.

When Katie Stanton, marketing and communications director for the Missoula Art Museum, moved to the city 12 years ago from Cincinnati, she took newspapers from three cities in Montana to get acclimated to her new state.

Saving elk, fighting fires

Two attractions near Missoula give groups a look at efforts to preserve elk and to fight forest fires.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Visitor Center has hands-on exhibits that showcase the work of the 25-year-old international nonprofit foundation, which works to ensure the future of elk and other wildlife and their habitat.

The free, three-year-old center also has a Lewis and Clark display, a collection of world-record elk mounts, a Western wildlife diorama and a state-of-the-art conservation theater.

Its gift shop has wildlife art and hand-crafted and Montana-made items.

Groups can tour the Smokejumper Visitor Center, the nation’s largest training base for fire fighters, known as smokejumpers, who parachute into remote areas to fight forest fires.

The visitor center has displays, dioramas and videos about their training, and guided tours take visitors into the parachute loft to show how the parachutes are sewn and to the training facilities.

“I found the attitude in Missoula was far different,” she said. “It is very accepting and inviting of new things. It has several nicknames, including Paris of the West and the Garden City.”

Tia Troy, public relations manager for the Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission, noted, “In Montana, Missoula reigns supreme as a cultural hub, with live theater, a vibrant downtown, live music literally every day of the week, First Friday Art Nights and a healthy population of writers and artists.”

“Kind of town square”

So, when a group leader fam trip visits Missoula this month, McCarthy will take them on a one-hour walking tour of downtown with its historic buildings and bustling shopping and dinning scenes and along the Clark Fork River waterfront where Caras Park is “kind of the town square.”

“There is an outdoor pavilion in a beautiful waterfront park where we have 75 events or more a year,” she said.

The park is also the location of the Carousel for Missoula, an inspiring story of community involvement. An army of volunteers spent three years and 100,000 hours carving and painting 38 ponies and two chariots and repairing an antique frame and motor.

“People love it,” said Barb Neilan, executive director of the Missoula Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The carousel is open to dong special things. She does mystery nights and will close down for groups.”

McCarthy will also point out the abundant public art around the city. “We have invested a lot of money in public art,” she said. “We probably have 25 to 30 pieces of art displayed in public areas, whether outdoors or in public buildings. They range from sculptures to murals, we even have a buffalo made out of metal.”

A city ordinance requires that 1 percent of the construction cost of public buildings be used for public art.

A different kind of public art project kicked off at the end of August during the annual River City Roots festival, when more than a dozen “drab, gray metal” traffic signal control boxes were painted by local artists.

“It is a long-term project,” said McCarthy. “Every year, we will try to do 12 to 15 more.”

Three years ago, the Missoula Art Museum opened a new expansion that seamlessly fits with the 100-year-old former Carnegie Library building where it is located.

The museum has more than 1,100 pieces of contemporary art in its permanent collection, including one gallery devoted solely to contemporary Native American art. It also maintains murals around town for the city.

The 34-year-old museum with its six exhibition spaces is one of the many uses of historic buildings in the heart of downtown.

There are a surprising number of varied and good restaurants, many of which use locally grown or raised products; galleries; boutiques; and locally owned specialty shops.

Even though the outlying Southgate Mall is the largest shopping center in western Montana, Macy’s anchors the downtown in a historic building that was the city’s original mercantile.

There are many ways to get around town, many of them tied in with the city’s penchant for outdoor recreation.

“It really is a town into alternative forms of transportation,” said Neilan. “There are all kinds of walking and bike paths all over town.”

You can even paddle a kayak through downtown at the three-year-old Brennan’s Way. “You are literally in downtown,” said Racene Freide, executive director of Glacier Country. “You can watch from a bridge or a walking trail along the river. You can also watch rafters come by and people fly fishing downtown. It is pretty cool.”

University diversity

Being home to the 14,000-student University of Montana helps Missoula’s diversity. “We are a university town, and the university attracts a lot of diversity in and of itself,” said McCarthy.

The campus, which Rolling Stone magazine dubbed the “most scenic campus in America,” spreads out at the foot of Mount Sentinel, across the Clark Fork River from downtown. A large white M on the mountain’s side is visible for miles.

Missoula has a strong performing arts scene, and one of its theaters has gain worldwide recognition for its programs that extend far from Glacier Country.

The Missoula Children’s Theatre not only presents productions locally but also travels throughout the United States and to other countries working with local schools.

“They come in a little red truck with costumes and set designs and two actors,” said McCarthy. “They stay at a school for a week and take kids and practice with them for a week and then put on a performance. They travel to all 50 states each year.”

McCarthy said the theater is starting a program for high school students, who will study in Missoula for a year. “They will go to a local high school and have a stringent performance arts component at the theater,” she said.

“All sorts of little different components give a well-rounded aspect to the community,” said Racene Freide, executive director of the Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission.

Researching your trip
Convention and Visitors Bureau
(800) 526-3465