A proposal to transform the alley behind the M&M Bar & Café on Main Street in Uptown Butte got a thumbs up Wednesday night from county commissioners, who voted 11-0 to support the effort that, if successful, will temporarily turn the alley into a public gathering place from June 27 to Sept. 10.
The transformation calls for, among other things, a cleaning of the corridor and the installation of overhead decorative lights, removable planters, tables, chairs, and art displays along the back sides of businesses that have agreed to be part of the project.
The proposal was presented by Community Development Director Karen Byrnes and Julie Jaksha, who heads the economic-development organization Headwaters RC&D and is spearheading the project.
If all goes according to plan, the alley will be closed to vehicle traffic during the day. At night, vehicles will be able to resume using the corridor from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. Meanwhile, participating merchants have agreed to take in tables and chairs after business hours.
As per the proposal, trash and emergency vehicles will be able to access the corridor through a perpendicular intersecting alley, while first responders will be able to remove planters in order to gain access to the alley in an emergency.
Byrnes and Jaksha said Wednesday that the project, which Jaksha previously estimated will cost around $5,000, will require very few taxpayer dollars.
Organizers plan to raise the necessary funds in the form of in-kind support and donations. Already, the two said, the project has received donated tables, chairs, and lights, while the Butte Local Development Corp. has agreed to pay the electricity bill to keep the alley lighted.
The only thing that would be asked of the county, Byrnes said, is help with cleaning the alley, which she described as “a great big flushing.”
“I think it’s a pretty low-cost project for us as Butte-Silver Bow,” said Byrnes. “This is a community project with a lot of partners coming into it.”
Byrnes also addressed safety, stating that she felt having a lighted pedestrian walkway would be a deterrent to illegal activity.
“In my mind, that creates a safer place rather than a scarier place,” she said.
Jaksha expressed excitement about the project, telling commissioners that the presence of a welcoming gathering space will draw more people “into the heart of our Uptown.”
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She added that she has spoken to all of the businesses along the corridor and that all but one are in support of the project.
Janice Hogan, co-owner of Butte Original Gifts, which will occupy a retail space along the corridor come July, and Jon Wick, owner of 5518 Designs, which is also situated on the block, wrote letters in support of the project.
Wick attended the meeting and told commissioners that the project is “an opportunity to create more of a vibrant, energetic core business district,” adding that he felt art will be an important piece of the puzzle.
But one business owner says he believes the transformation will cause more harm than good.
Ted Deshner, who owns the Party Palace at 1 W. Park St., told The Montana Standard Thursday that he feels the inclusion of seating will attract the wrong kind of crowd and that the area will become a magnet for the homeless and people wanting to take advantage of Butte’s open-container rules, or lack thereof.
He added that he doesn’t believe lighting will be much of a deterrent.
“Do we really want that element in our alley? Because that’s where they’ll go,” he said.
He also expressed concern over whether the project will create a liability for business owners, who he said won’t be able to constantly keep an eye on seating areas.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” he said, to put that kind of pressure on business owners.
Nonetheless, most commissioners Wednesday expressed excitement over the project.
District 12 Commissioner Dan Callahan thanked Jaksha for trying to do something positive, while District 7 Commissioner Josh O'Neill said “let’s get it going.” District 11 Commissioner Cindi Shaw said the concept seems like a good idea on the surface but added that she hopes it doesn’t put a strain on law enforcement.
If it goes well, Byrnes said, organizers would like to transform the alley again next year and will perhaps look at doing something similar in other alleys in Butte.