Downtown Billings has a handful of lucrative properties currently up for sale and depending who buys them and how they're developed, they could change the shape of the city.
It's a confluence of opportunity that some city leaders and local developers have called a once-in-a-generation opening into downtown Billings' landlocked urban landscape.
"The canvas is there to be painted," said John Brewer, president of the Billings Chamber of Commerce.
The two-story Good Earth Market building at Second Avenue North and North 31st Street has been vacant since co-op members voted to close the business in October. South on Montana Avenue, the St. Vincent de Paul office and thrift store has been empty since the charity made its move in December to new digs on First Avenue South.
Most recently, and maybe the most high-profile property, is the 6.6 acre lot that was once Empire Steel. The tank fabrication business shut down in November and auctioned off its assets a month later. The property sits along 6th Avenue North across the street from North Park and is the largest single plot of land in downtown Billings to go on sale in recent memory.
"It's opportunity No. 1," said Tim Goodridge, coordinator of the East Billings Urban Renewal District.
For a piece of land to attract developers, Goodridge said, it must present a clear opportunity.
"Vacant property, vacant real estate, it's always opportunity," he said.
He pointed to the new development going in one of the old warehouses at the eastern end of Montana Avenue. Liberty & Vine will be a combination country mercantile, antique booths, bakery/eatery and second-story apartments.
"Who would have thought somebody would come in and do what they're going to do," he said.
It's why he and other city leaders get excited about something like Empire Steel.
The Empire Steel property presents a genuine opportunity to fundamentally transform the eastern corridor of downtown Billings, Goodridge said. East Billings is almost exclusively industrial and as the city looks to increase its commercial and residential appeal, it needs more housing and more marketplaces.
The problem is, there's little available space downtown to add significant residential housing, he said. And to make residential space attractive, the neighborhood needs a viable marketplace, like a grocery store and other basic retail.
That's what makes the Empire Steel, Good Earth Market and St. Vincent de Paul properties so intriguing. The right developments could have a significant impact on the trajectory of downtown, Brewer said.
He pointed out that redevelopment in downtown Billings is a particular challenge. The city is pinned between Interstate 90 to the south the Rims to the north, and all the commercially available property in between was bought up and developed years ago.
Occasionally buildings go up for sale or blighted plots of property are auctioned off. It's seldom, however, that a parcel of land the size of something like the Empire Steel property goes up for sale.
"That's once in a lifetime," Brewer said.
Goodridge's guess is that the Empire property will sell soon.
"There's been plenty of interest," he said. "I guarantee you lots of people are interested in it."
The potential to develop the Empire Steel land opens the door to mixed, large-scale housing and commercial projects. The St. Vincent de Paul building on Montana Avenue holds the same potential. But its future is likely more restrictive.
The building sits on property with right of way owned by BNSF Railways. In order to develop it into apartments or condos, BNSF would have to sign off on the change of use.
And it's been a while since BNSF has agreed to those kinds of changes, Goodridge said.
One of the last projects it approved is the small apartment complex, the Tracy Lofts, in the building on Montana Avenue just east of the vacant St. Vincent de Paul store and offices.
"BNSF wants to be a proactive community partner as Billings looks to redevelop property along the railroad tracks," Ross Lane, BNSF spokesman for Montana and Wyoming, said through email.
They evaluate projects on a case-by-case basis, he said. If BNSF doesn't believe the project is congruent with the railway, it won't sign off.
"We do want to make sure that developments are compatible with railroad operations," Lane said. "That would include but is not limited to soundproofing and vibration mitigation, as well as ensuring pedestrians and vehicle traffic are not able to easily trespass on railroad property."
Goodridge would love to see a developer turn the old St. Vincent de Paul store into residential housing. He's hopeful BNSF would approve that kind of a project.
More likely, he said, is that the building will be developed into commercial and retail space.
Another good opportunity
The Good Earth Market building has enormous potential for housing another market place or grocery store for downtown residents. Brewer still mourns the loss of Good Earth and is hopeful to see some kind of grocery or similar store take its place.
As he considers the potential these different properties hold, he's hopeful that whoever develops them will look at using some of the planning that already been done by groups like the chamber and the Billings City Council to guide what they do.
"There's so much potential," he said.
Likewise, Goodridge feels optimistic about the direction downtown development is taking. The council just approved the construction of four, small 900 square-foot apartments and 2 duplexes in the East Billings Urban Renewal District.
It's the first new residential building project in the EBURD in 60 years, he said.
Goodridge is confident development of downtown Billings will continue to gain momentum and change the city.
"The dollars are out there," Goodrich said. "It's just a matter of someone coming in and seeing something there."