Bryan Stafford, director of the Big Sky Fencing Association—think swords, not cattle—had one small goal in mind when he approached the Montana Rescue Mission last year.
His fencing club needed a new space to practice and compete, and he knew that MRM owned a huge, almost entirely vacant complex of connected buildings on Minnesota Avenue. His plans grew more expansive after he toured the buildings with Mission Director Perry Roberts.
“I said, this really needs to have something happen here besides fencing,” Stafford said. “It became clear that it was much bigger than that and needed to be used in a much better way.”
The fencing club is now using a portion of the complex that once housed the Granny’s Attic antique mall, and Navigate Church is using another. And those groups have teamed up with MRM to found an organization known as Billings Community Space.
Their goal is to make as much of the space as possible available to nonprofit groups, clubs and micro-businesses, all in hopes of building community and rejuvenating a neglected part of downtown Billings.
So much has already been done to revitalize the central business district and Montana Avenue, Stafford said, and “this is a great opportunity to bring that across the tracks. If we do this, there’s potential to have lots and lots of people from all over the community coming down here.”
The complex, at Minnesota Avenue and South Broadway, is a collection of buildings—anywhere from five to seven separate structures, depending on whom you ask—with a combined square footage of something like 100,000 square feet. The oldest building on the block was erected in 1890 and housed a dry goods store owned by the Yegen Brothers. Other tenants over the years included Elliot’s Furniture and Western Liquidators.
Granny’s Attic did business there for 13 years before closing in 2010, after which the property reverted to MRM, which operated a bargain center there for a few years. That closed last year, and some of the vacant space became storage room for the Mission or simply held unsold merchandise from the bargain center.
Roberts, the MRM director, said the rest of the complex sat vacant until last December, when the Mission partnered with Harvest Church to open a community center in one portion of it, at 2804 Minnesota Ave. The community center, an outgrowth of efforts to do something for transients and homeless people in the downtown area, is operated by volunteers. It offers visitors coffee, soup, companionship and help accessing other services.
“That’s where it all started,” Roberts said. “We had a lot of vacant space.”
There had been some thought of making more of the space available for other groups, he said, but plans really took off after the Big Sky Fencing Association got involved.
The Rev. Jill Riley and her Navigate Church were the next to come on board, occupying the space inside the main entrance to the old Granny’s Attic, and the Friendship House of Christian Service is planning to use some of the space for its youth music program.
“This thing is actually coming together a lot more quickly than I had hoped,” Stafford said.
Roberts said MRM, whose Men’s Mission is attached to the western end of the Granny’s Attic complex, had once thought of expanding into the larger space. But late in the 1990s, an architect who examined the space said it would be cheaper to raze the building and start from scratch.
The buildings still have problems, Roberts said, and they need a new roof before anything else, but they appear to be in good enough shape for the kinds of uses being proposed by Billings Community Space.
Roberts said the group is working with Randy Hafer of High Plains Architects to do another structural and architectural review of the complex. To help pay for that review, the group has applied for a grant from the Downtown Billings Alliance. DBA Director Lisa Harmon said the committee that reviews applications is interested in the concept but has asked for more details.
Roberts said that because MRM’s properties are tax-exempt, it won’t be charging rent for use of the buildings. The plan is to enter into some kind of cost-sharing arrangement in which participating clubs and agencies would help pay for renovation and upkeep.
“The headline is, we’re just kind of scratching our heads to decide what to do with all that space,” Roberts said. “We’re done putting money into this building. We’ve got other places to put our donated funds.”
Stafford and his wife, Grace Kim, already own Billings Open Studio, on the third floor of the Kress Building at 2814 Second Ave. N. It is mostly being used by individual artists needing studio space, Stafford said, and is not associated with the project on Minnesota Avenue.
Above all, he said, he wants the Billings Community Space to be a vehicle for helping people discover there is nothing to fear on the “wrong side of the tracks.” If enough groups start using the buildings on Minnesota Avenue, he said, it could be the catalyst for attracting other businesses—a coffeeshop, a bookstore?—to the neighborhood.
“The more we can foster those kinds of interactions, it’s just better for the community overall,” he said.
For more on the project, and details about getting involved, go to the Billings Community Space website.