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Environmental, outdoors center planned for Montana Avenue
BOB ZELLAR/Gazette StaffRandy Hafer, Eileen Morris and Paul Hickman (left to right) discuss the planned Environmental Center at 2606 and 2608 Montana Ave.

During the last dozen years, Montana Avenue has blossomed from an eyesore into a stylish street with cafes and good restaurants mixed amid the pioneer art galleries, pawn shops and a bar or two.

The eclectic nature of the avenue could soon include a showcase center on Montana's great outdoors.

Our Montana Inc., a non-profit group that used to be called The Montana Parks Association, wants to open the center in a vacant storefront across from the Billings Sheraton Hotel.

Executive director Paul Hickman said outdoor enthusiasts have been talking for a long time about opening a one-stop shop to help people explore Montana and learn its issues.

"Wouldn't it be a great idea if environmental groups could share space, save money and benefit from the synergies when groups work together?," Hickman said.

The concept will be called Our Montana's Enviro.Center and it will offer information from all sources, including government agencies.

The center will lease street-level space from High Plains Architects, which bought an abandoned building at 2606 and 2608 Montana Ave., east of St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store.

The area has been nicknamed SoPO, for south of the Post Office.

The goodies Tourists could stop to get custom GPS maps of Montana historic sites, or of campgrounds.

Spatial Systems Science of Billings handles GPS mapping, Hickman said, and could produce the maps from its extensively detailed CD collection.

"They could tell an RV owner, 'Here's a map of campgrounds within 10 miles of Choteau,' if that's where they're headed," Hickman said.

Our Montana's Enviro.Center could house satellite offices of the major environmental and conservation groups, such as The Conservation Roundtable, Montana Conservation Voters and the Eastern Chapter of the Montana Wilderness Association.

Information center The center would house a library with pamphlets and brochures from federal and state lands agencies. People could visit the center to research the state's parks, rivers, historic sites and trails, data that mostly sits in a corner in a government office now.

"The BLM has been extremely interested in this project," Hickman said. "They said, 'It's about time we got around to this.' "

The colleges could hold classes at the center, including GPS work.

"Both Rocky Mountain and Montana State University are interested in expanding their environmental studies programs and have expressed keen interest in this," Hickman said.

Two high-speed Internet terminals will allow people to surf for knowledge, including legislative data.

The round communications center in the middle of the 4,000 square-foot space also will have pre-programmed telephones. People can dial various government agencies, environmental organizations, or talk to an outfitter and guide from these phones.

The plan includes small retail outlets like a coffee shop, a bookstore and an outdoors store. The basement could be converted into conference room space.

The Base Camp and Thomas Books have been approached and seem interested, Hickman said.

Susan and Dallon Thomas, the husband and wife owners of Thomas Books, have looked at the project, but haven't committed yet.

"We like the concept, but we don't know if it fits our business at this time," said Susan. One concern is that the original Thomas Books is so close, just five blocks away at 209 N. 29th Street.

Scott Brown, owner of The Base Camp, was away and could not be reached for comment.

Ordering another cup of "Dancing Goats" coffee at the successfully renovated McCormick Cafe, Hickman talked about adding art work now in storage at the Yellowstone Art Center.

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"We want to make this a revolving exhibit of artwork pertaining to Western landscapes," he said. "We could display art that is never going to get hung in the art museum itself."

The historic building Randy and Janna Hafer, owners of High Plains Architects, also own Urban Frontier Development Venture 2, which bought the building and is renovating the structure.

High Plains architect Bill Morris said the plan is to install radiant heating in the floors, restore the plaster-on-brick original look to the walls and to build six loft apartments on the second floor. Renovation work on the two storefronts that used to be a pawn shop and a farm equipment shop already has begun.

Pointing to the massive 12-inch-square timbers that hold up the building's interior, Eileen Morris of Our Montana explained that the timbers will be decorated with cottonwood and aspen bark to look as much like the Montana outdoors as possible.

"The interior here will have an ambiance of being outside," Eileen Morris said. "There will be trees and flora and fauna."

In addition to this Montana Avenue building, Urban Frontier Development is acting as the deal maker for other downtown projects, putting smaller investors together and helping them navigate the complex maze of historical grants and loans.

"There's a huge equation that has to go together," Morris said. "It can be scary."

When the projects are done, vacant buildings are transformed, he said.

"You don't just have an ugly old building, you have a beautiful building with a lot of potential," Morris said.

For the dream to become a reality, Hickman said Our Montana must raise between $40,000 and $70,000. Fundraising is just beginning.

Hickman, though, is as enthusiastic as they come.

"We have a tight time frame," he explained. "I would like to have at least one office open by early July."

Jan Falstad can be contacted at (406) 657-1306 or at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com

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