From downtown tenants to downtown landlords

2008-01-19T23:00:00Z From downtown tenants to downtown landlordsED KEMMICKOf The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
January 19, 2008 11:00 pm  • 

In the spring of 2007, as the last of their three children was coming up on her high school graduation, Steve and Joni Harman were making plans to move out of their house in Yellowstone Country Club Estates.

They looked at various houses and condominiums around town, Joni Harman said, but "we really weren't seeing anything that grabbed us."

Then they met with Randy Hafer, an architect who has helped develop numerous condominiums and loft apartments in downtown Billings. By May, they had signed a year lease on one of Hafer's two-story loft apartments in the Oliver Building at Montana Avenue and North 27th Street.

After they'd been living there about seven months, the Harmans began looking into what they would do next. They considered buying a condo, but they also thought of building a new house. They talked to Hafer again, partly because he had some experience with building "green," eco-friendly houses, which they were interested in.

At the end of a long conversation in which they discussed a variety of possibilities, Joni Harman said, Hafer told them, "You know, there is one other thing."

That one other thing was a vacant, for-sale building on the 2600 block of Minnesota Avenue, and that afterthought launched the Harmans on their new career as developers.

They purchased the building and are preparing to convert it into as many as 10 apartments, with possibly some kind of commercial space on the ground floor.

"The opportunity just presented itself, and we jumped at it," Joni Harman said. "If we hadn't lived downtown in a loft, we wouldn't have known enough - certainly not enough to buy a building."

As it was, their own experience downtown convinced them that others will want to be part of that experience.

"Living downtown, we've discovered so much of what we missed," Steven Harman said.

He is an attorney with an office in the Transwestern Plaza on North 31st Street, so he can walk to work and to the YMCA to work out. The Harmans said they've also learned to appreciate all the live outdoor music downtown, the Alberta Bair Theater, the Farmers' Market and a downtown grocery store, the Good Earth Market.

Steve Harman said they wouldn't have bought the Swift Building, as it is now known, if a plan to create a downtown "quiet zone" hadn't been in the works. The quiet zone is expected to be in place by early 2009, after which trains passing through downtown Billings will no longer have to sound their horns.

That will make a big difference to a wide area of downtown Billings, but will most affect buildings like the Harmans', the back of which is about 75 feet from the main rail line. Many of the buildings on the north side of the tracks, fronting Montana Avenue, are only about 40 feet from the trains.

The two-story building at 2605 Minnesota Ave. that the Harmans purchased was built by Swift & Co. as a meat-processing plant in 1916 and was used most recently to process potatoes into french fries, hash browns and other products.

The Harmans plan to live in a 1,600-square-foot apartment on the second floor, and Joni's sister and her husband are thinking of renting the other second-story apartment. Because the land on which the building sits is still owned by Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway, the Harmans cannot sell condos in the building.

There is about 4,000 square feet of space on each floor. One unique feature is a 10-foot-square chamber that rises from the basement floor to the top of the building. It was used to smoke meats, Steve Harman said, but they will add a floor on each level to make another usable room. In their apartment, he said, he plans to put a window or two in the chamber and convert it into a home office.

The Harmans also hope to buy a vacant structure - a set of joined Quonset huts that served as a shop - just to the west of their building and use it for secure parking.

The Harmans' enthusiasm for downtown living might be their best selling point.

"We really, really like living downtown," Joni Harman said.

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