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Main Street

Businesses line Main Street in the Billings Heights, pictured Wednesday.

The idea, as Jin Zhao explains it, is pretty basic: cater to customers' basic wants. 

That means serving up cold, sweet treats along with something savory and hot off the hibachi. 

Zhao's new restaurant in the Heights, Sweet Love, will serve ice cream rolls and hibachi-grilled to-go items, like teriyaki and stir fry. It's a kind of fire-and-ice combination and the idea took shape after Zhao watched several friends open little eateries in their own communities.  

In Georgia, Zhao had a friend who opened a hibachi to-go shop, where it took off. Another friend opened an ice cream roll place in Ohio that became popular. Zhao wondered if she couldn't combine the two: a restaurant that caters to the cold-weather crowd alongside one that serves cool treats to a warm-weather crowd.  

"In Montana we need both," she said with a laugh. 

Zhao is hoping to get Sweet Love open by the first week of March; signage is already up and crews now are finishing with the interiors. It's opening on Main Street in the Heights, in the small strip mall that includes the new T-Mobile store and SportsCuts near the Metra. Sweet Love moved into the storefront that housed Vapor Craziness, which closed late last year. 

"We're almost done," Zhao said. "Just waiting for work to finish."

For decades business on Main Street has been active and almost constantly in flux. Its collection of shops, restaurants, bank branches, hotels, convenience stores and casinos swap in and out, leaving the face of Main Street much the same. 

In a sense, said Denis Pitman, Heights resident and county commissioner, the more that Main Street changes the more it stays the same.

"Main Street is what Main Street is," he said.

Billings' Main Street is an oddity when compared to most streets with that name. The street, known to some older residents as Old Highway 312,…

The largest parcels along that stretch are established business centers, like Albertsons on one end and Walmart on the other. The old 4 Seasons Shopping Center, which was once anchored by a sporting goods store is now a Dollar Tree with an adjacent pawn shop and casino.

Main Street's mix of businesses means shops like Sweet Love can move in relatively easily and find their niche, said Kelly McCandless, communications director for the Billings Chamber of Commerce and a Heights resident. 

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Sweet Love

Sweet Love is opening on the south end of Main Street in the Billings Heights, pictured Wednesday.

"When you're seeing businesses open, or expand to a second location, and they're choosing the Heights ... it's a huge indicator to us that business there is continuing to do well," she said. 

Shipton's Big R recently opened a store in the Heights, it's third in Billings, a block off Main Street. Opportunity Bank is expanding in the Heights as well, opening a branch there. The parcel of farmland at the southwest corner of Hansen Lane and Lake Elmo Drive, a block behind Main Street, has been cleared and is slated for a multi-family residential development.

In a way, the Heights has done its own thing compared to the rest of Billings as it's grown and developed over the years. 

"It's a different part of town," McCandless acknowledged.  

But, she said, it has allowed developers and different businesses to come in and find their place. Hippy Cowgirl, the eclectic interior design and clothing shop, recently relocated from downtown to Main Street.

McCandless said as these businesses find their niche it gives residents from across Billings reasons to drive up to the Heights, and that's good for development in the Heights and for commerce across the whole city.

"It does just continue to grow," she said. 

Looking toward the future it's the east side of the Heights where most believe significant new development will take place. Right now, on the eastern-most end of Main Street, the state will rebuild the intersection with Roundup Road as part of the Billings Bypass project with standard traffic signals. 

The improved intersection will promote all kinds of growth and make it easier for drivers to approach the Heights from the east, Pitman said. 

"That's going to be huge," he said. 

But the biggest impact to commercial growth in the Heights will be the Billings Bypass and the inner belt loop, he said. 

The Billings Bypass is a Montana Department of Transportation project, currently in the design stage, that will take Coulson Road in Lockwood, carry it over the Yellowstone River and intersect with Mary Street and Five Mile Road in the Heights. Mary Street connects with Main Street on the east side of the Heights. 

The inner belt loop is a city project that will connect Billings' West End to the Heights, bringing Wicks Lane overland to the Zimmerman Trail-Highway 3 intersection.

The two projects together will literally open up the east end of the Heights to new business development, Pitman said.  

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Main Street

Businesses line Main Street in the Billings Heights, pictured Wednesday.

Main Street is boxed in where the eastern edge of the Heights is wide open, Pitman explained. He pointed to Skyview High School. When it was built in the 1980s, it felt like an outpost on the prairie. 

Today, the high school sits in the middle of a neighborhood and businesses all along Wicks Lane have grown up to meet it, he said. Expanding road and other infrastructure on the east end of the Heights makes a lot of sense. 

"What a perfect place to grow," he said. 

The side benefit is that it will pull traffic and activity away from the "Metra and Airport Road bottleneck," he said. That stretch of Main Street famously became a public safety hazard in June 2010 when a tornado touched down near the Metra and first responders had trouble accessing the area because of blocked traffic. 

For Pitman, who served two terms on the Billings City Council representing the Heights, the Billings Bypass and the inner belt loop will do more than anything to foster economic development in the Heights. 

"That's going to be next explosion of commercial activity," he said. "That will be the epicenter."

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.