Some of the business owners who stand to be displaced by the huge development project planned for downtown Billings are worrying about what they will do next, but not Gary Temple and Marylee Moreland.
The married couple own Meadowlark Gallery at 118 N. 29th St. and they live above the art gallery. If the One Big Sky Center comes off as planned, a 25-story building, the tallest in Montana, will rise up from the site of their gallery.
The project, with a price tag of more than $120 million, would include a hotel, apartments, a conference center, a parking garage and a pedestrian greenway, all centered on the corner of First Avenue North and North 29th Street.
Temple and Moreland expect the developers of the project to close on their three-floor, 32,000-square-foot building in February. They plan to downsize and buy a smaller gallery-house southwest of Billings, open only by appointment.
They are both enthusiastic supporters of One Big Sky Center. Indeed, it would be hard to top Moreland’s endorsement of the project.
“This development coming to Billings will be as beneficial … as when the railroad came at the turn of the century,” she said. “It will have that broad of an impact.”
George “Skip” Ahern, one of three partners in MontDevCo LLC, the company behind the project, said they have already bought or are under contract to buy all the land that makes up the project’s footprint, 70,000 square feet in all, including a parking lot at First and 29th.
A few doors down from Meadowlark Gallery, at Yesteryears Antique Mall, 102 N. 29th St., owner Colleen Rooke has bittersweet feelings about the project. She’s had friendly dealings with the developers, she said, but she doesn’t know what will happen to her business.
She’s been in the antique business for 32 years in four locations, and the one she’s in now is by far her most successful. After starting in a single room with less than 500 square feet, she is now leasing 15,000 square feet on three levels, with 50 antique vendors.
“I’m not bragging, but we’re one of the busiest businesses downtown,” she said.
She was thinking of retiring in a few years and selling the business anyway, but now she doesn’t know how to go about that. She said the Downtown Billings Alliance has promised to help her find a new location, but everything is up in the air while people wait to see whether the One Big Sky Center will actually be built.
The city is being asked to put up an undetermined amount of tax increment finance district money to build the conference center, greenway and parking garage. Ahern presented the City Council with an overview of the plans Monday night; the next step will come when he and his partners give the council a draft of a predevelopment agreement on Sept. 12.
Montana Vintage Clothing owner Sherry Daly, at 112 N. 29th, is also a supporter, though she’s not sure where she’ll end up if the development goes through.
She has been in her current location for three years and was next door for six years before that. She said MontDevCo has made “fair offers” for her building, and the developers have to give her two months’ notice before she would have to leave, but like Rooke, she can’t really make moving plans until the project’s prospects become clearer.
Still, she said, “I really believe that in the long run, this will be good for downtown Billings. … I really do endorse it.”
Then there is Swank Enterprises, the contractor that recently moved into a renovated building at 2925 First Ave. N., which used to house Cook Travel and later a campaign office for U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont. It is just across the alley from the backside of Yesteryear Antique Mall and would be demolished to make way for part of One Big Sky Center’s parking garage.
The manager there, Mark Qualman, could not be reached for comment, but presumably Swank has no objections to the project, since Ahren said on Monday that Swank would be the general contractor on the project. Swank Enterprises was founded in Valier, south of Cutbank, in 1960 and now provides construction services in Montana, Washington, Idaho and Wyoming.
Next door to Swank, at 109 N. 30th Street, Art House Cinema & Pub isn’t going anywhere, according to founder Matt Blakeslee.
MontDevCo expressed an interest in buying the building the Art House is in, Blakeslee said, but he has a secure lease and has been assured by the building owner that Art House will be staying put. In fact, Blakeslee said, he is still working toward his long-term goal of buying the building and expanding the number of screens.
One Big Sky Center’s plans include a five-screen movie theater, but Blakeslee said that shouldn’t affect Art House Cinema, since it shows independent and alternative films, as opposed to the first-run films that would be shown next door.
“We don’t feel like we’re ever in competition with ‘Star Wars,’” he said.
Blakeslee said the project should be good for Art House and all downtown businesses, because “any reason to come downtown is a win for us. … that’s just good for the us and good for the city.”
The only other occupied business that would have to move to make way for the project is the Wise Wonders Children’s Museum at 110 N. 29th, between the antique mall and Montana Vintage Clothing. The museum director, Kelli Toohill, could not be reached for comment.
A three-story building on Second Avenue, which runs west from North 29th to the alley and used to house a Wendy’s restaurant, is not part of the development. At the moment, its street-level storefronts are vacant.
Businesses north of Art House Cinema on North 30th—La Tinga restaurant, the Leather Factory, Wetzels Quality Cleaners and Shanghai Village restaurant—likewise are not part of the development footprint.
Nor does the development require the relocation of any of the business on the east side of North 29th Street, north of the parking lot that the developers have already purchased, a string of stores that includes Brockel’s Chocolates.