Tammy and Melody Fletcher take old pieces of furniture and make them new again, and they’ve found the perfect place for their shop, For the Funk of It, in downtown Billings.
The Billings couple are artists and veterans of auctions and estate sales, hunting through forgotten items that could become treasures in their new shop at 2702 Minnesota Ave.
With upholstery and creativity, they can flip discarded $10 dining room chairs for more than a hundred dollars. An old bicycle could be a fountain — just replace the seat with a basin and run a water line past the spokes to create a funky conversation piece for the home.
“We like to introduce a lot of colors into people’s homes and make it fun,” said Tammy.
The Fletchers opened For the Funk of It in February, the newest business to pop up on one of Billings’ oldest streets. They have big plans to boost foot traffic, like parking their Flaming Ladies food truck out front during warm weather and holding a street fair, and they want to honor their neighborhood’s history. Minnesota Avenue dates back to the founding of Billings and was once a bustling, raucous cultural center.
In recent years, Minnesota has been plagued by vacancies and blight, and improvement efforts have stalled. The city designated the area as an historic district in 2009, but business owners say they need more help to continue redevelopment of the street’s core and reclaim its status as a Billings destination point.
“There certainly is some unrealized potential there that we’re trying to realize,” said Randy Hafer, owner of High Plains Architects at 2720 Minnesota Ave. and a major driver of the street’s redevelopment in recent years.
If Montana Avenue is the golden child of downtown Billings, then Minnesota Avenue is its spunky stepsister. The two
streets were named after the Montana & Minnesota Land Co., which oversaw Billings’ first developments in the 1880s along the rail lines.
Montana runs along the north side of the railroad tracks, with Minnesota running along the south side. Minnesota starts at the Montana Rail Link building on its west end, runs for about a dozen blocks through the center of town, then curves under the tracks at the Phillips66 refinery and spills into North 13th Street.
Minnesota was home to what historians believe was Billings first building, P.W. “Bud” McAdow’s general store, which now houses For the Funk of It.
As frontiersmen became settlers, Minnesota and Montana avenues grew. Minnesota became populated with bars, opium dens and brothels. It was the center of China Alley and home to dozens of Chinese immigrants who worked on the railroad.
In more recent times, Minnesota was home to well-known Billings bars, including the Arcade, Oasis and Yukon.
But in the last 15 years, the nearby Montana Avenue has undergone a renaissance with restaurants, breweries, a distillery and quaint shops. It was aided by the creation of a city Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district, which paid for street and sidewalk improvements and made the street more attractive.
Aside from a few notable exceptions, Minnesota has been unable to keep up, although Hafer said businesses on the street haven’t given up.
“There’s clearly work to be done,” he said.
The Western and Wheel bars closed in early 2013, leaving a gaping hole on the 2000 block of Minnesota. The purple awning and sign remain outside, underneath a big wagon wheel.
Realtor Chuck Platt of Re/Max of Billings said he’s listed the property for four years and had “quite a bit of interest” for the operating bar but signed no deals.
The 8,981-square-foot property includes both bars, connected through a doorway inside, and is listed for $359,000. Platt said the new owners could qualify for historic preservation tax credits by restoring the old look of the Western.
“Somebody with a great vision and deep pockets could really do something there,” Platt said.
The property, like the rest of Minnesota, is hampered by a stigma that the South Side is a rough, crime-ridden place (which Platt believes is unfair) and the proximity of its front doors to the railroad tracks, he said.
The property also no longer has a liquor license attached to it, Platt said. Liquor licenses in Montana are sold by lottery based on population and usually cost six figures.
Nevertheless, Platt remains optimistic that the Western Wheel could thrive again as a bar or restaurant, provided people are willing to travel from other parts of town.
“To do a major restaurant, you’ve got to create a destination place. And the issue is, you’ve got to get people across the tracks,” he said.
Other vacancies on that block include an old hotel next to For the Funk of It and a storefront that’s being turned into an art studio.
Karl Morledge owns these three buildings and has previously discussed remodeling the hotel into loft apartments. Morledge wasn’t available for comment last week.
While these buildings have remained vacant, key projects have also fallen apart that could have encouraged development.
Last May, the Billings City Council nixed a $1.7 million plan to move a pedestrian bridge from Joliet to 25th Street, which would have connected Montana and Minnesota avenues. The project ended up costing double the original estimate, and the city reassigned the state Community Transportation Enhancement Program to other projects.
Other suggested improvements have included more street lights, sidewalk improvements and other infrastructure enhancements on Minnesota.
“Unfortunately, a lot of things haven’t happened down there yet. But I think everything that’s happened on the Montana Avenue side, it’s going to spill over there,” said Lora Mattox, the city’s historic preservation officer.
Hafer called the failure of the bridge “a bummer” but vowed to keep pushing for one.
The rising number of transients in Billings is also a problem, but it’s in all of downtown, not just Minnesota Avenue, business owners said. They’re also quick to point out that the South Side’s reputation isn’t as bad as advertised.
“There is a stigma, but it’s evaporated,” said photographer Peter Herzog, who operates a studio in the basement of the L&L Building at 2624 Minnesota Ave.
Despite setbacks, Minnesota Avenue business owners say they think it’s a matter of time before the area is booming again.
In the basement of the L&L building on the eastern edge of South 27th Street, Fred DeFauw opened three years ago the Chinatown Gallery, which has become a staple of city’s ArtWalk tours through downtown.
DeFauw said he hadn’t specifically sought out a Minnesota Avenue location when he looked for a gallery, but it’s been a good fit.
“I needed a place. I cleaned it up, and it’s blossomed,” DeFauw said.
He added that the area is poised to boom, which he thinks will bring more attention and foot traffic past his gallery.
Herzog, the photographer, moved into a space in the Chinatown Gallery last year, and he said he sees a similar future.
“It takes some vision, and some people with some money,” he said.
Across the street is perhaps the most successful redevelopment on Minnesota. Designed by Hafer of High Plains, the Swift building was transformed from an old warehouse into loft apartments in 2007.
Owners Steve and Joni Harman also developed the buildings next door, which have become the Fieldhouse restaurant, Gym Jay fitness center and a law office.
Joni Harman said the Fieldhouse, owned by her son Ben Harman and his wife, Kristi, has become a popular place for people looking to eat off the Montana Avenue strip.
“What we’ve seen with the Fieldhouse is people are willing to travel down here… People can come down here and find a place to park,” she said.
Harman added that she’d like to see more loft apartment built on Minnesota Avenue, even if they then compete with her Swift lofts.
“I’d love to see it fill out,” she said.
Across from The Fieldhouse, the Galles Building at 10 S. 26th St. has been empty for years but will soon have a new life.
The nonprofit Family Promise bought the building in 2012 from the city and is planning renovations this summer, said Jeff Kanning, a Family Promise board member and principal architect at Billings-based Collaborative Designs.
Family Promise provides services for homeless families. The agency is planning to convert the second floor into a day center for those families and the first floor as offices for its three employees, Kanning said.
“Our goal on the exterior is to strip off all that old paint, refinish it to the original brick, and put in some new and modern windows,” he said.
It would be a big improvement for a crumbling building that’s now covered in graffiti. Built in the early 1900s, it was best known as the Maple Leaf, a bar at the center of the city’s Chinese district. It was once owned by two women from Nebraska and rumored to be a brothel and opium den.
Officials at Family Promise, an interfaith organization, know of the building’s notorious past and respect it, Kanning said. They considered opening the Maple Leaf Cafe on the ground floor but decided a retail outlet didn’t fit the organization’s mission, he said.
Nevertheless, the building will maintain its original look, Kanning said.
“We’re trying to make it look like it did before,” he said.
At the southwest corner of Minnesota and South 27th Street, the Fletchers are beginning to attract more passers-by with their furniture display.
Other business and property owners on the streets say they’re happy to see the store open, but they also know it’s not an anchor tenant. The sign outside still bears the name of the former tenant, the Big Sky Blue Gallery.
Other retailers or restaurants need to move in for Minnesota to better compete with the rest of downtown, the West End, the Heights and other business sectors, they say.
The Fletchers say they’re happy with their new home, and they want to stay in Billings oldest building for the long term.
“We love the character of it,” Tammy said.