Subscribe for 17¢ / day

Lisa McCue Pugrud loves making old things new. It’s the philosophy behind the new retail shop she’s opening in downtown Billings, and it’s the reason why she chose an historic building to do it.

McCue Pugrud and her husband, Phil Pugrud, are purchasing the former Bissinger building at 2525 Minnesota Ave. near the corner of South 26th Street.

With the help of public money from the city, the couple are planning to open a Real Deals on Home Décor franchise store in a once-blighted area. The building will also have room for a second tenant, a day spa.

“We’re just excited to bring it,” said McCue Pugrud, a Billings resident.

Real Deals will join a growing retail front on historic Minnesota Avenue, which has undergone a renaissance over the past decade with a mix of private and public investment.

On Monday, the Billings City Council approved $150,000 in tax-increment financing from the city’s downtown district to help Real Deals. McCue Pugrud said they will use the money to build a sidewalk, improve exterior façade and the roof, and conduct engineering.

Tax-increment financing, or TIF, is one of the few economic development tools available to local governments to attract development. In this case, the city’s downtown TIF district will reimburse the couple for the public portion of the renovations, including infrastructure and exterior appearance.

Montana legislators put TIF districts under the microscope during this year's session, considering roughly a dozen bills to curb their reach. No significant bill passed, but lawmakers are expected to review TIF districts again in interim committees.

The couple is investing between $500,000 and $600,000 to restore and fix up the building, using bank financing. They are spending another $120,000 to $130,000 to purchase it.

McCue Pugrud and her husband also had to secure a land lease from Montana Rail Link and Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

The 5,000-square-foot building has been vacant for about two years and was last home to Mintana Mills, a feed store. Originally, it was home to Bissinger Co. Pacific Hide and Fur. Animal pelts would come through on trains, get dropped off and thrown into a basement chemical vat, then shipped to market, according to McCue Pugrud.

The property changed hands a few times in the next decades and endured long periods of vacancy. McCue Pugrud said it needs a lot of work before she can open.

“The building has been pretty beat up over the years,” she said during a recent walk-though.

Hulteng Inc. is the contractor, and Don Olsen of O2 Architects is the architect. Paulson Media Blasting did interior cleaning of the brick and other areas, and Hill Masonry is repairing and replacing brick outside.

McCue Pugrud said some features will stay. The yellow pine wood support posts are a great look, and the original overhead door adds to the historic look, she said.

The old Bissinger Co. building joins a busy block with a diverse group of businesses: the Swift loft apartments, the Fieldhouse restaurant, the Annex coffee shop and bakery, and the law office of Steve Harman. Nearly all the new businesses there have thrived, and only one, Gym Jay, has closed in recent years.

Across the street, the nonprofit Family Promise raised $600,000 to transform the old Galles building into its main office building to help low-income families. Another historic building on the same block, the L&L Building, was recently purchased by attorney Russ Plath for his law office and is home to a restaurant, Mel’s Lunch Box, owned by two local women, Tammy and Melody Fletcher.

Harman and his wife, Joni, are pioneers on this part of Minnesota Avenue, west of 27th Street. They’ve owned the Bissinger building for about six years, and the sale to the Pugruds will close in a few weeks.

Joni Harman said the couple had mulled redeveloping it themselves, but they’re glad the Pugruds came to the neighborhood.

“We’re thrilled. We’re happy to not be the only reason that people come to this little neck of the woods. I think Real Deals will do great, and we’re looking forward to the synergy between our businesses,” Joni Harman said.

On the east side of 27th Street is a furniture and collectibles shop, For The Funk Of It, also owned by the Fletchers. Smiling Dog Records also operates on that block at the corner, but most of that side of Minnesota Avenue is filled with old, vacant buildings.

Real Deals was launched in 2004 by a group of five Idaho-based sisters with an interest in home décor. The company now has about 70 locations in North America.

The store sells home décor at low prices, and Pugrud said the company founders urge franchisees to find locations off the beaten path and develop a destination.

A Billings franchise operated previously on the West End.

McCue Pugrud is a licensed mental health counselor at Youth Dynamic, a job she plans to leave to run the business. She also spent 18 years in the travel industry.

Her husband is a credit analyst at First Interstate Bank.

The couple both grew up in Winnett in Petroleum County and lived in various places, mostly the Pacific and Inland Northwest, before moving to Billings about six years ago.

They bought a 1960s-era house and have been renovating ever since – a sort of a test run for the larger project on the South Side, McCue Pugrud said.

“I like old buildings, old houses. I just like the feel of them,” she said.