Helena’s downtown master plan doesn’t seem to be a document destined for dust.

Completed last year through a Helena Business Improvement District and City of Helena partnership, the plan has caught the city commission's interest.

Similarly, the Business Improvement District is anxious to see it begin to shape city perspective and policy. A $50,000 study is intended to move forward the master plan’s recommendation for a downtown market.

Those interested in conducting a feasibility study for a downtown market have until April 10 to respond to a request for qualifications.

How quickly a market could become part of the downtown is uncertain, said Mark Roylance, the Business Improvement District’s chairman.

Getting a developer interested would be a first step and that could take a year or more, he noted.

Even still, the Business Improvement District is making the concept of a public market a priority because of the overwhelmingly positive response it received during meetings held to shape the master plan, Roylance explained.

“We’re convinced it is an idea that can work in a city our size," he said. 

“It’s one of those things that can be a real magnet for people to come downtown,” he said.

Adding a grocery store to the market is likely something that will wait until more downtown housing is constructed, Roylance said.

But downtown housing along Cruse Avenue through leveraging city-owned property such as parking lots, rights-of-way and surplus land for redevelopment is another part of what the master plan envisions and is called a “catalyst project.”

The master plan tentatively named the market in honor of a stately theater that was demolished nearly 45 years ago and located near the intersection of Broadway and South Park Avenue.

Charles Johnson, in an Independent Record story, reported on May 21, 1972, that “for weeks the blank marquee of the Marlow Theater hung as a silent symbol of its impending fate."

“Now they are ripping the building down to enlarge a street for urban renewal, and with it, they are shattering some childhood memories," his story said. 

Even though this venue for Vaudeville and then motion pictures is gone, its name graces the envisioned market that the master plan offers as a 20,000- to 30,000-square-foot structure with year-round space for 15 to 20 tenants. The master plan sees the market as being in a prominent location with ground floor access and convenient parking.

In addition to a market, the Business Improvement District is including incubator space for start-up businesses and a shared kitchen for restaurants.

It’s hoping a feasibility study will answer questions that include whether a market is a good idea for Helena’s downtown, what its architecture should be, where the building should be constructed, how to recruit vendors and entrepreneurial partnerships and a financial plan and funding.

“Marlow Market is a key component in the master plan that we think has the potential to make a big and lasting impact on downtown,” said Renee Bauer, the Business Improvement District’s director.

The concept of incubator space in the market, she explained “allows somebody who has a really great idea but not really great financial backing to test drive it."

“It really is a true incubator concept, so it’s especially appealing to young people,” she said.

A downtown market could have several restaurants sharing the same kitchen space on different days if these restaurants aren’t yet ready for weekly service.

The incubator spaces would also allow an established business owner to try something new and see how it's received by the public, Bauer said.

Part of the market’s appeal could be vendors selling locally sourced products too, she added.

“By having those different kinds of vendors, it creates its own entertainment in lots of ways," she said. 

While Bauer looks to the feasibility study to offer ideas on locations, she sees advantages with a multi-story building where offices for visiting professionals such as mental health counselors could be rented by the hour, day or week.

“But those offices are used by a multitude of different kinds of professionals,” she noted.


I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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