The move of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul charity office and thrift store to a new building south of the railroad tracks began about three years.
Ernie Dutton, who had done some volunteer work for St. Vincent de Paul, was coming out of a Rotary meeting at what is now the DoubleTree by Hilton and decided to walk across Montana Avenue to the charity office.
He asked Ed Zabrocki, director of the office at the time, whether he needed any help with anything real-estate related. Zabrocki said the only thing he really needed at the moment was a better kitchen, since the one in the charity office was not up to snuff as a commercial kitchen.
Dutton was working with Zabrocki on that project when, some time later, he happened to be at another Rotary meeting, where he talked about the project. After the meeting, he said, Mayor Tom Hanel came up and told him that rather than working on a new kitchen, he ought to help St. Vincent find a new home.
City Administrator Tina Volek, who was also at the meeting, soon joined them and seconded the mayor’s suggestion.
Dutton said the idea was no real surprise. He himself had been involved with the Downtown Billings Alliance and had worked on the Downtown Billings Framework Plan, which was completed in 1997 and did much to spur redevelopment in the central business district and on Montana Avenue.
Partly because of the success of those redevelopment efforts, but also because of widespread concern at the time about transients and public drunkenness, it was no secret that many people wanted St. Vincent to move its charity office off Montana Avenue, where it had been since April of 1972.
Dutton said the relatively high number of transients and others who gathered on the sidewalk near the charity office every morning and afternoon to partake of programs and free food were seen as a detriment to further development in that area.
So, with Zabrocki’s blessing, Dutton began looking for a new building. He eventually settled on the Crane Building at 3005 First Ave. S., a vacant, remodeled warehouse with 23,000 square feet on three floors, which includes a full basement, and a 70-car parking lot.
Zabrocki resigned last January, but Vicki Massie, volunteer coordinator and IT manager for St. Vincent de Paul, said the sale of the charity office (see related story), plus the sale of the St. Vincent thrift store building on Grand Avenue, provided enough funds to move forward on buying the Crane Building.
St. Vincent also received a $350,000 tax increment financing grant from the city of Billings, which it used to make improvements to the new building. Some costs remain, Massie said, but they won’t know how much until the new building is fully renovated. St. Vincent will do a fundraising campaign to finish the process, she said.
Massie said the charity office, now located at 2601 Montana Ave., plans to be in the Crane Building by the end of July. Then, sometime in the next year, the St. Vincent thrift store and related operations will move there, too.
“We’ll work on that 45 years of stuff,” she said, referring to the thrift center, which is packed to the gills in the basement, the ground floor and a mezzanine space. “It’s a humungous amount of work.”
Massie said the move makes sense financially because though St. Vincent had paid off the buildings on Montana Avenue years ago, it was still paying to lease the underlying land from BNSF Railway.
The move will also put it nearer to organizations providing similar services, including the Montana Rescue Mission on Minnesota Avenue and the Community Leadership and Development Inc.’s new headquarters on South 29th Street, a block from the Crane Building. CLDI will be offering services there and providing affordable housing.
The Crane is also close to the recently reopened MRM thrift store, just across 29th Street from the CLDI project.
“This will be good for Montana Avenue and good for St. Vincent de Paul,” Dutton said.
Jeremiah Young, one of the new owners of the charity office, who plans to renovate the building and make it available for commercial tenants, said St. Vincent’s move is “a watershed moment for that area and for Montana Avenue.”
Massie said she, too, understands the concerns about St. Vincent’s presence on Montana Avenue, but she also admits to feeling like her organization is the red-headed stepchild of Billings.
“Nobody wants us, but we serve a purpose,” she said. “We serve an important purpose.”
In the year that ended on June 30, 2016, she said, St. Vincent de Paul made rent payments totaling just under $79,000 for 284 households, made utility payments totaling $31,000 on behalf of 222 households and provided 1,126 households with certificates worth $65,000 for clothing and household goods from the thrift store.
Massie is also proud of Project Reboot, which put refurbished computers into the hands of 32 students in need, and of St. Vincent’s metal “mining” project, which involves disassembling old appliances and other items to salvage scrap metal—almost 63,000 pounds of metal that year.
At the charity office itself, officially known as the Charitable Works Office, “friends,” as their clients are called, were served 24,647 lunches, and nearly 40,000 pounds of free loaves of bread were distributed.
Twice a week, a doctor, mental health counselor and addictions counselor from RiverStone Health, the county’s public health agency, visit the charity office to provide their services, and the Job Service has people there every Friday. The charity office also handles Social Security accounts for 160 people who for various reasons can’t manage their own accounts.
More information on what the charity office does in available on the St. Vincent de Paul website.
All those services will be offered at the new location, Massie said, and St. Vincent will continue to offer a washer and dryer and public restrooms, plus a place to hang out and drink coffee during the day.
The organization’s offices will occupy the main, or second, floor and the the thrift store will be on the third, with access by stairs or elevator. The store will be smaller than the existing one, Massie said, but “we’d like to upscale the thrift store a bit” and will be meeting with regular customers to hear their suggestions.
When the thrift store does move into the new building, she said, “we’re going to move as little as possible. We’re going to have a 45-year blowout sale.”
RiverStone Health will have its own office on the main floor. The basement will be used for sorting, metal salvaging, the computer program and a document archive.