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By Andi Bourne

Rebuilding with Faith, Hope and Love

Merc Groundbreaking


Nathan Bourne, Pathfinder

Len Kobylenski speaks to the attendees at the groundbreaking for the new Mission Mountains Mercantile, May 22. He said the rebirth of the Merc was for the community. The community support was evident with more than 100 area residents at the ceremony.

SWAN VALLEY – A few days after the one-year anniversary of the fire that destroyed the Mission Mountains Mercantile (Merc) and the Swan River Valley Real Estate office, the Swan Valley community gathered May 22 to break ground for the new Merc.

Onlookers watched as owner Len Kobylenski moved the first shovel of dirt with a golden shovel. Kobylenski's partner Grace Siloti said it's all about the people and how the nightmare has turned full circle, bringing the community together.

In the early morning hours of May 18, 2016, volunteer firefighters from the Swan Valley and Seeley Lake responded to the call that the Merc was on fire. The structure was quickly engulfed taking with it 38 years of memories, work and as Missoula County Sheriffs Office Sergeant Bob Parcell said, "The heart of the Swan Valley."

"This whole thing started out as a nightmare for everyone," said Siloti. "But if anything it has brought the community together. For everyone who didn't think they needed Len, they realize they need him. For the people [Len] didn't think he needed, he realizes he needs them. It's been a wonderful full circle for everyone and has just brought everyone closer together."

Since 1979, Kobylenski has gotten up every morning and walked from his home behind the store to work. The store only closed 40 days in 38 years. He would see his neighbors, his friends and meet interesting new people traveling through.

"Now it is quiet," said Kobylenski. "We've been in this no-store zone for a year. When you don't have that you have that kind of empty. It's a habit that is hard to break."

After two months of waiting to clean up the rubble, the fire investigator still did not have a definitive cause of the fire. Siloti said they are assuming it was electrical but that answer brought little closure to the tragedy.

After everything was cleaned up, Kobylenski spent months in the discovery process working through the state and county commercial building permit process, calculating the expense required and assessing whether he had the resources and energy to rebuild. While the gas tanks in the ground survived the fire, everything else was starting from scratch.

"Something the local people needed to understand was I'm not going to have gas without a store and I'm not going to have a store without gas because you need that in this rural area to integrate those services. We are a small place so you've got to have a little bit of everything," said Kobylenski.

After they surveyed the property, they had to generate architectural drawings and make sure they could get all the permits. It was not until a few months ago that Kobylenski and Siloti knew what the total challenge was and decided to rebuild.

"There are many onerous and challenging regulations that have appeared over the past number of years. I have to say that was a hurdle. But what I found in the state and county people, there was some kind of force there that seemed like someone wanted to have the Merc come back," said Kobylenski.

Siloti added, "They knew the need for this here and what it meant to the community. It just sort of passed through nicely. It wasn't easy because we still had to do everything but it was speedy."

Kobylenski said that the people he worked with at the state and county levels were very familiar with Merc. Some were customers and the Merc was their stopping point.

"It's about the people," said Siloti. "I kept saying we have to do it because of all of us who have worked so hard to live here. [Without it] it will just die."

At the ground breaking the community could see the architectural drawings for the new store.

"It will keep enough of what was thought of the old store, the porch and the rustic feeling, but it is also going to be some of the new - brighter and more open," said Kobylenski. "It will be everything it was and more."

Matthew Brothers Construction will be building the new Merc. Kobylenski hopes to have it completed this fall.

"They are local people. They want it back and they are such an integral part of the Valley," said Kobylenski. "They are feeling [the pressure from the community] and want to get it done. We have complete faith in them."

Siloti is looking forward to the people, being busy and getting back to being happy again.

Nathan Bourne, Pathfinder

Owner Len Kobylenski looks on as Grace Siloti takes the second scoop at the groundbreaking ceremony. Kobylenski said that if it wasn't for Grace, this would not have happened.

Kobylenski is excited to have his employees back since before the fire they were trying new things and just getting ready for another summer season.

"I had excellent employees," said Kobylenski. "They are the key ingredient. You've got to have more than just a building. You have to have those people that want to do it."

Kobylenski said the community support to rebuild has been overwhelming. His past customers that he now calls neighbors have been asking what they can do to help. They have offered to stock shelves, crush boxes, sweep the parking lot and the list goes on.

"They just keep saying we just want to do this," said Kobylenski. "It's humbling."

"It's faith, hope and love. This doesn't happen anywhere else," said Siloti. "We will not only have the best sandwiches this side of the Mississippi, we will have the coolest store."


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