Like a lot of people born and raised in Billings, Matt Blakeslee was used to looking to other cities for arts, culture and entertainment generally.
Billings was a good place to make money and it was the biggest city in Montana, “but it had never felt like the most cultural or vibrant community,” he said.
He didn’t think it had to be that way, though, and neither did his wife, Kate, also a native of Billings. In their travels, when they’d visit other cities where so much was happening, they’d say to each other, in Matt’s words:
“We can do this in Billings. We have the people and we have the infrastructure.”
Blakeslee is acting on that belief now as he works toward a December opening of the Art House Cinema & Pub, at 109 N. 30th St., a small, independent movie theater that will also serve locally made microbrews.
He is far from alone.
Among the developments that have been fueling talk of a downtown renaissance is the transformation — already well underway — of the old Greyhound bus depot at First Avenue North and North 25th Street into the Pub Station, a live music venue that also will be serving a variety of local microbrews.
There is also Commons 1882, the new restaurant at Fourth Avenue North and North 30th Street. It will take its place with Lilac Café and the Fieldhouse, two other downtown restaurants where inventive chefs make the most of organic and locally sourced foods.
On the 100 block of North Broadway, the heart of downtown Billings, new storefronts are occupied by Belle and Blanc, a bridal shop, and Prohibition Clothiers, which sells tailor-made men’s suits and formal wear.
They’ll soon have two new neighbors: Doc Harper’s, a martini bar scheduled to open in November, and Big Dipper Ice Cream, which is shooting for an opening in February.
Around the corner from those businesses, at 2813 Second Ave. N., Kristi Grob is opening another Pita Pit. And across the street from that location, on the second floor of the Kress building, Ted Kim manages Billings Open Studio, which is owned by his sister and brother-in-law, Grace Kim and Bryan Stafford. Their plan is to make the space available to artists, photographers, musicians and filmmakers.
Ted Kim, who first came to Billings seven years ago, stayed briefly and then returned to Los Angeles to work in television production, didn’t find much to like about Billings on that first go-around.
On his return in the summer of 2013 — he came here to heal from a bad bicycling accident — he was struck by what seemed like a completely different vibe in downtown Billings.
“It reminds me a lot of Portland 15 or 20 years ago, before Portland became a big deal,” he said.
Not all the news has been quite so rosy. Two downtown clothing stores are closing — Marcasa is simply done and Bottega Clothing is moving to the West End. In the case of Bottega, it seems to be just one of those cyclical things, a case of pursuing customers to where they live and work.
But with Marcasa, the closure is actually another case of downtown success. The owner, Jeremiah Young, is so busy creating a new Kibler and Kirch design studio on the second floor of the Stapleton Building above Marcasa that something had to give. He is in the midst of a stunning restoration project — turning 4,000 square feet of exhausted space into a many-chambered design studio that will replicate the building’s 19th-century origins down to the smallest details.
Like Kim, Young is bullish on downtown Billings.
“It’s kind of like being on the ground floor of something,” he said.
Young first came to Montana in 1994, then moved back in 2005 with his wife, a native of the state.
“I was sure the last place in Montana I was going to live was Billings,” he said. He was disenchanted with the loss of old buildings, with the seeming indifference to history and esthetics. But he opened Marcasa, while running his Kibler and Kirch design studio in Red Lodge, and somehow, over the years, things changed.
Suddenly there was a new generation of people in downtown Billings, people who had a different vision for the future.
“Maybe Billings is starting to attract creative young people,” he said, “and these people are not interested in what’s happening on the West End.”
Jason Corbridge, the chef who founded Café DeCamp and is now a partner in Commons 1882, grew up in Billings, but these days “it feels different. … We’re starting to see the community embrace itself,” he said.
Some people say the booming downtown is simply the result of the city having reached critical mass, of having a metropolitan area with nearly 150,000 people. As Corbridge put it, “Billings is a big enough town that there ought to be enough of everything for everybody.”
Lisa Harmon, director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, said another factor is that baby boomers and millennials — “our two largest demographics right now” — are the generations most interested in living downtown. And once they move downtown, they want services, entertainment, cultural offerings.
Another factor is that a lot of longtime business people are retiring, passing their businesses on to younger family members or selling their spaces to a new generation of owners, “and they have these crazy ideas for their businesses,” Harmon said.
Ann Kosempa sees a lot of that, too. She and her husband, Sean Lynch, are the developers of the Pub Station and they’ve been living and working downtown since 2001.
“It’s a changing of the guard, I think,” she said.
Sean added, “I see a lot of younger people coming in and trying new things.”
Though a lot of younger residents might not even be aware of it, Harmon said, the downtown’s rebirth owes much to a long, intense planning process that resulted in the Downtown Framework Plan 17 years ago.
That lengthy planning document, and the creation of tax increment financing districts that grew out of it, prepared the way for many of the projects that jump-started the downtown revitalization.
Mike Mathew, a partner in the redevelopment of the Montana Power Company and Babcock buildings on North Broadway, and also in the Pub Station, said “framework” was a fitting name for the plan because “it didn’t structure projects, it structured a concept.”
It helped provide funding for building renovations, façade restorations, the conversion of old buildings into loft apartments and the creation of parking garages, always a huge need in downtown areas.
And don’t forget the biggest project of all, Mathew said: the reopening of the historic Northern Hotel after a top-to-bottom makeover by the Nelson brothers, Mike and Chris. Just a few years ago, that downtown flagship was empty and forlorn, an emblem of downtown decay.
Just south of the Northern is the new Empire Parking Garage, another child of the Downtown Framework. Its recent opening is expected to spur development in two of the few vacant properties on Montana Avenue — the old Burlington Northern building and the old Billings Hardware building, both of them at Montana and North Broadway.
The garage itself has commercial space on the street level, soon to be occupied by First Montana Title and the Asian Sea Grill and Sushi Bar. Bill Honaker, the owner of Walkers American Grill, owns some of the parking spaces in the new garage as well as the corner spot at Montana Avenue and North 27th Street.
He said he has no specific plans for the space. He had planned to open another restaurant but now is thinking of leasing it to someone else interested in doing so.
“As for the revitalization of downtown,” Honaker said, “it’s been in the making for 10 years, really. I just think the public — and probably the younger public — are finally buying in.”
Harmon said if the buildings near the new parking garage are finally developed, that momentum could jump the railroad tracks to Minnesota Avenue.
“I think you’re going to see something dramatic in the next five years” on Minnesota Avenue, Harmon said. “There’s a lot there and a lot that’s ripe for development.”
Young, the owner of Marcasa and Kibler and Kirch in the Stapleton building, said another sign of progress downtown is that it’s not just local investors who see the possibilities.
“There’s people from outside looking in,” he said. “They see a spark of something here as well.”
That building, formerly occupied by a Montana State University Billings bookstore, is known as the Annex, as in annex of the Stapleton, Parks said. He said he has owned buildings in downtown Bozeman for 15 years and thought it was time to diversify “and give Billings a try.”
He drove all over Billings looking at possible investments and decided he liked the downtown best.
“With the Northern and the new parking structure and all the new businesses in that area, it does seem like a really good vibe,” he said. “I’m bullish on Montana; I’m bullish on Billings.”
Harmon said there are other projects in the wings that she can’t talk about yet. But she did confirm that a developer has purchased the parking lot across the alley from the Stapleton building, at First Avenue North and North 29th Street. The parking lot is now closed, suggesting that some sort of redevelopment is going to happen soon.
Also in the works is the Billings Artspace Project, which aims to create affordable live/work loft apartments for artists. The concept started in Minneapolis and there are now 37 such projects across the country.
The organizers of the project recently held an informational meeting at the Billings Public Library, where they spoke of trying to get the city of Billings to act as a partner with Artspace to get the project off the ground.
It is just one of many projects that has a lot of people talking about a vibrant present and a future full of possibilities.
Bryan Hickey, of Missoula, who will be a co-owner of the Big Dipper Ice Cream shop with his wife, Sarah, a native of Billings, said the excitement downtown is more and more noticeable.
“Every time we go back to Billings,” he said, “my wife says, ‘This is not the town I grew up in.’”