Mike Schaer got his college degree in chemical engineering, but he has made his living in the computer business.
"That's the problem with engineers," he joked. "They think they can solve any problem."
It was that mind-set that guided him in his efforts to rejuvenate Montana Avenue. He didn't work from a master plan; he just solved a succession of small problems.
Schaer, 68, was born and raised in Chicago and went to graduate school in Oregon. He came to Montana in 1969 to teach at Montana State University in Bozeman. There he met Joel Long, another man on the list of the most influential people in Billings. Long knew some people in Billings who needed help with their computer systems, and Schaer, who had taught himself to work with computers, started commuting to Billings from Bozeman.
After some years of going back and forth, he moved here in 1978 and founded Computers Unlimited. He started out on Poly Drive but soon moved to Montana Avenue. Schaer bought his first building there 24 years ago and has been steadily expanding since.
He now owns many Montana Avenue properties between North 26th and 22th streets. Some of them house parts of his Computers Unlimited business and his 170 employees, and some house other businesses of his, including the McCormick Café and Q restaurant.
He and Gene Burgad of the Rex spearheaded an effort to revitalize Montana Avenue in the late 1990s, when property owners put up half the $1.2 million cost of street work, sidewalks, decorative crosswalks, planters and landscaping. The avenue has been booming ever since, and the progress there is credited with spurring other developments around downtown.
Schaer also helped other businesses get established on or near Montana Avenue, including CTA Architects and Venture Theatre. He thinks it's all pretty basic. You help others move into the neighborhood, and they bring more businesses, more people, more opportunities.
"It doesn't take great vision to open your eyes," he said.