Big retail, residential project planned for Montana Avenue

A Billings couple has plans to turn a large warehouse on the east side of Montana Avenue into a country mercantile, antique mall and breakfast-and-lunch cafe, with five loft apartments on the second floor.

And because the warehouse, at 2019 Montana Ave., includes a big vacant lot to the west, the Liberty and Vine Country Store, as it will be called, will have its own 32-space parking lot, a rarity on Montana Avenue.

“That was the biggest draw for us,” said Amy Pawlowski, who is developing the project with her husband, Jason.

The couple just recently secured financing for the project and they hope to start demolition and construction in the next few weeks, and to open for business in April or May.

The Pawlowskis will run the mercantile and they have already found someone strongly interested in owning and running the cafe, they said. And without having done any advertising yet, Jason said, 18 of the 34 stalls in the antique mall are already spoken for.

One of the five apartments is spoken for, too: the Pawlowskis intend to sell their West End house and live above their shop. Amy, who grew up in Custer, said she’s enjoyed watching the rebirth of downtown Billings over the past couple of decades.

“I want to be part of that,” she said. “I also want to be part of the downtown community.”

The project is welcome news to Tim Goodridge, coordinator of the Billings Industrial Revitalization District, the private, nonprofit organization that represents property owners within the East Billings Urban Renewal District.

Goodridge said the Pawlowskis will be building not only the first loft apartments on the east end of downtown, but possibly the first residential development of any kind there in 60 years. Construction on another housing project a few blocks from Liberty and Vine could start this spring, he said.

“We’re starting to get some people moving into the district, which is pretty exciting,” he said.

The BIRD is also working on a project to put in 159 streetlights throughout the district, which will include lighting Montana Avenue from North 22nd Street to its terminus at North 13th Street, a project that should be done within 12 to 18 months, Goodridge said.

As for Liberty and Vine, Goodridge said, “that’s going to be great for everybody on Montana Avenue.”

Development has been creeping east on Montana for years, one of the more recent projects being the Last Chance Pub & Cider Mill, which opened late in 2016 at 2203 Montana Ave., a block west of Liberty and Vine. The Pawlowskis’ building is on the north side of Montana Avenue, right where North 21st Street passes under the railroad tracks.

Amy and Jason

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Amy and Jason Pawlowski stand in what will be the antique mall in their building. They are surrounded by some of the antique furnishings and shelving they have collected for displays in the mercantile store they are also going to open.

Amy Pawlowski used to own Candy Town USA at Shiloh Crossing. But after running the store for 11 years, she sold it in June 2016.

“I was going to retire,” she said. “That lasted three days.”

She said she has been in retail for most of her life and wanted to continue, and to mix that with her love for “timeless, nostalgic things.” She and Jason knew they wanted to be downtown and looked at many buildings before the warehouse on Montana Avenue went up for sale.

“We looked at this the first day it came on the market,” Jason said. “Amy knew she wanted it right away.” That was in February; they closed on the building in May.

The main brick building was constructed in 1914 and was always used as a paper warehouse, as far as the Pawlowskis know. One-story additions were added to the east and west sides over the years, and with the basement in the main building the total space comes to almost 37,000 square feet.

West

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

A view of the building looking west down Montana Avenue.

They weren’t looking for something quite so large, and at first they thought they’d try to lease out the 5,000-square-foot addition on the east side of the building. But they ended up with the idea of an antique mall, whose vendors will have the advantage of being able to use a huge basement room for storing excess merchandise, which will make restocking booths a lot easier.

The Pawlowskis hadn’t thought of building residential units, either, but the second floor of the original building, with its high ceilings and many windows (most of them now bricked over), seemed perfect for that use.

Their plan is to build four 900-square-foot apartments, each with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and washers and dryers, plus a one-bedroom, one-bath unit. Each apartment will also have an 8-by-12-foot deck projecting off either the east or west side of the building.

On a tour of the basement Thursday, Jason gestured to one large room and said, “Most of the space down here will be to store the stuff we can’t bear to part with when we sell our house.”

The cafe will be the ground floor of the main building, formerly an office space, with the mercantile store behind it and in the big warehouse to west. Amy said the mercantile will be a general store with hardware, paint, clothing, a children’s section, linens, home decor and lots of “old-fashioned items.”

The mercantile will also carry lots of made-in-Montana products, Amy said, including specialized groceries, produce, cheese, meats and the like. The main entrance will be on the west side of the building near the parking lot, with handicapped access to the cafe also providing access to the antique mall and mercantile.

The mercantile and the antique mall will have the same hours, Amy said: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with plans to be open on Sundays from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and maybe in the summer in the future.

The Pawlowskis are working with John Atkinson of AT Architecture in Billings, and will be using Hardy Construction for the remodel. They are being financed through Yellowstone Bank, with some secondary financing from the Montana Idaho Community Development Corp. They also hope to receive some tax-increment financing for infrastructure improvements through the BIRD.

Bonus fact: Don’t look for any deep meaning in the Liberty and Vine name.

“I wrote down a bunch of words I like, and that’s what I came up with,” Amy said. “I wish I had a better answer.”

Details: To follow the Pawlowskis’ progress as they work to open their new business, you can follow them on their Facebook page.

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