About 70 people gathered recently in the Thornton building to discuss Uptown Butte, both its problems and merits, and with the help of a facilitator, tried to define the sense of place Uptown currently possesses.
Dr. Patrick Sullivan was introduced to the room, mostly comprised of business owners, by Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer, who said past factions couldn’t get together to decide on priorities for Uptown. Palmer hoped Sullivan would be able to lead a discussion that fostered new ideas and identified common priorities among business and building owners in the Uptown area.
Although Sullivan is director of Montana state’s professional development center, he came to Butte as a private consultant, not in his capacity as a government employee.
He says he’s seen real results from these kinds of sessions, and that tangible benefits usually come from open discussions like the one he was hosting here in Butte.
Dr. Sullivan’s method was to pose two questions to the audience, and then have them break into groups of 5-7 people who could collaboratively answer them. The questions were: “what would your ideal sense of Uptown look like” and “what 2 or 3 particular changes would you like to see in Uptown”
Sullivan, who is from Helena, said his ideal sense of Uptown would focus on its historical significance, perhaps including a walking mall similar to Last Chance Gulch in the state’s capitol.
Within one of the working groups, business owner John Wick discussed some of the things he’d like to see Uptown, and pointed to some challenges Butte faces.
After about 30 minutes of discussion, each group was asked to summarize their sense of Uptown Butte.
When asked what specific changes each group recommended in order to achieve their vision for the Uptown, themes around security and cleanliness began to emerge.
All of these ideas were then written down on large sheets of paper and posted at the front of the room. Participants in the meeting were asked to review them.
Following up on repeated suggestions that the Uptown is unsafe, I asked one of the group participants, Tom Cronnelly, to explain the link he saw between vagrancy and security.
Several other business owners at Monday’s meeting cited Butte’s homeless population and the pre-release as the cause of a sort of misperception people have about the city, especially those visiting from elsewhere, that the central business district is unsafe.
No homeless were present at the Thornton building for the visioning session, and several participants advocated for more police on the streets of Uptown. When I relayed the contents of Monday’s meeting to a woman named Patricia, who often congregates Uptown and who once explained to me that she sleeps in the US Bank lobby when it gets cold, I asked her the same question that Dr. Sullivan asked of more than 70 members of the Uptown business community: what does Butte need to change in order to improve?
Dr. Sullivan’s facilitated discussion yielded three main priorities for Butte: clean it up, make it safe, promote it. Participants also called for a ‘master plan.’
As Chief Executive Palmer pointed out at the beginning of the meeting, this isn’t the first time such observations have been made. In fact, a 1972 report on the uptown central business district, put together by the rural/urban design assistance team in conjunction with the BSB planning department, stated very similar goals: the need for long-range comprehensive plans, the need for goals around which the community can unite, off-street parking and pedestrian plazas, even stating that “particular attention should be given to improving the appearance of public areas.”
Making uptown Butte appeal more to visitors is still a big focus of the business community, more than 40 years after conversations about these problems began. Green space has been a longtime goal for Butte’s development strategists, but suggestions of tearing down buildings to create new parks were met with resistance at Monday’s meeting. Additionally, there was little mention of the parks that have in fact been eliminated by recent development, such as the park at the site of the new NWE building on park & main, or the park and accompanying mural that were destroyed for the new parking garage. Park street’s last remaining park, at Wyoming, is the site of the forthcoming Praxis medical center.
Monday’s meeting, though billed as a clean slate for collaboration, was more of a continuation of a long-standing dialogue about the status of Uptown Butte, and why the city remains divided, economically and otherwise, from the rest of the state.
For KBMF, I’m Clark Grant.