Let’s not give up on downtown Billings


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Transients gather at the St. Vincent de Paul charity office on Montana Avenue, next door to Clark Marten Photography.

You want to talk about problems with transients on Montana Avenue? Talk to Mike Schaer.

When he moved his computer business to the avenue 33 years ago, there were vacant buildings all along Montana, and “the transients were really all over the place.”

They could buy cheap booze at the Empire Bar, the Rainbow Bar and Lobby Liquor, which was on First Avenue North and even had a walk-up window. And that’s not all.

“There were hookers up and down the street, flagging down cars,” Schaer said.

There has recently been a sense of alarm over the number of transients on the streets of downtown Billings. Business owners vented their frustrations at a public forum and city officials met with the Mayor’s Committee on Homelessness to talk about some solutions.

All well and good, Schaer said, but “it’s a manageable problem. And compared to what it was, it’s no problem at all.”


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Mike Schaer talks about milestones reached during Computers Unlimited’s decades-long residence on Montana Avenue.

It’s nice to be reminded of such things, and not just from an old Montana Avenue hand like Mike Schaer.

I heard similar sentiments from Clark and Rachel Marten and their son Rudi. They moved their business — Clark Marten Photography — from Columbus to Montana Avenue last summer.

Clark and Rachel had plans to turn the successful business over to their son. He was interested, but he wanted to move the business to Billings.

“That’s where I wanted to live and where most of my clients live,” Rudi said. He also pushed for the downtown location. They are at 2606 Montana Ave., next door to the St. Vincent de Paul charity office, one of the biggest downtown gathering spots for transients, homeless people and poor families.

The Martens have gotten to know many of the street people by name, and they’ve never had a problem. Their beautifully renovated photography business, 10,000 square feet of ground-level and basement space, has never been damaged or vandalized.

They do have a couple of large planters full of flowers out front. Some people thought they were crazy to imagine they wouldn’t be vandalized or stolen. One planter was pushed over one night, but the Martens suspect it was someone leaving a neighborhood bar, not the local transients.

In an odd way, many of the street people seem to respect what they’re doing on the avenue, Clark said, and they’ll sleep in front of St. Vincent de Paul or the building next door, but not in front of his business.

Recently, one familiar transient pulled Clark aside and said he really liked what’d done with the building, but he had one suggestion — that he change out the photographs in the window display more often.

The Martens live above their business in loft apartments. “We get up at 5:30 and walk to Anytime Fitness” — half a block to the west — “and I’ve never felt any danger,” Rachel said.

Schaer, who bought, renovated and sold, at little or no profit, many buildings on Montana Avenue, said he has never had any problems with the transients, either. In 33 years there’s never been a break-in at his Computers Unlimited and “we have never had any of our people touched.”

Marten said that when he brought in a Columbus contractor to renovate his building, the man was worried about leaving tools around, or parking his truck on the avenue. But he never lost a thing.

By contrast, when the same contractor was working on a new West End business last year, Clark said, thieves broke the padlocks off his truck on two occasions and stole tools and equipment.

Schaer said there are four things business owners need to do to avoid trouble with transients. Keep your building and grounds well lit; make sure the alleys are completely paved (soft spots invite sleeping); remove places to sit; and “never, ever give anyone on the street, any transients, any money, ever. Period.”


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Rudi, Rachel and Clark Marten, inside their Montana Avenue photography studio.

That may sound a bit cold-hearted, but it’s the same message you hear from the charitable groups, the two downtown bike cops and the Downtown Billings Alliance.

There are so many places where homeless people and transients can be fed that no one needs to beg for money to eat. Last year, when I was interviewing transients in North Park one morning, I saw people from a food wagon — I can’t remember if it was a church or the Salvation Army — delivering breakfast to transients lying asleep in the grass.

That kind of scattergun charity might feel like the good, Christian thing to do, but it provides little incentive for a person to do anything for himself. If you can panhandle enough money for a six-pack of malt liquor, drink all night and get breakfast in bed, why change?

Rachel Marten said the charitable impulse is admirable, and is part of what makes this a good town.

“Billings is such a giving community,” she said. “People want to help. But it needs to be organized.”

That’s why the Martens support the concept of building a one-stop campus that brings together all the agencies that provide services to the homeless and to transients. Rudi said the concept works in other cities because such operations have separate tracks — programs for those trying to get back on their feet and at least a safe shelter for those who don’t want help, for whatever reason.

A one-campus solution was the main topic of discussion at the recent meeting of the mayor’s committee. But such a solution is years and millions of dollars away.

Until then, we should be trying to get the message out that the downtown, all things considered, is as safe as anywhere in the city, and is still the best part of the city. I’ve worked downtown for 25 years, lived six blocks from here for 24 years and now live downtown myself, a block from the Martens.

Should we tell people to stay out of the Heights because some drug-crazed guy recently shot up the burger joint on Main Street? Stay away from Rimrock Road and Pictograph Caves because another drug-crazed guy got trigger-happy at those locales?

The downtown just gets better as Billings gets bigger, and a lot of good people are looking for ways to manage the problems that cities inevitably face.

We need more people like Mike Schaer and the Martens, people willing to invest in the downtown, to work and live there and to stay realistic and optimistic.

I’ll give Rachel Marten the last word on the downtown: “We need to make it good for everybody.”

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