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Mike Schaer, owner of Computers Unlimited, talks about his years

Mike Schaer, owner of Computers Unlimited, talks about his 30 years of helping to restore historic Montana Avenue. Schaer was awarded a 2012 Montana Historic Preservation Excellence Award.

When Mike Schaer moved his small Computers Unlimited staff to Montana Avenue in 1983, derelicts and prostitutes ranged free and hundreds of pigeons made homes in the roofless historic buildings. Some of Schaer’s friends thought he was, well, a bit daft.

But Schaer had never wavered from his dream that Montana Avenue could become a lively, cosmopolitan street like the Michigan Avenue he frequented during his boyhood in Chicago.

As for folks ready to call him crazy along the way …

“I never let them get that far,” Schaer said with his boyish grin.

The building-by-building restoration has taken more than three decades, but Montana Avenue has now been largely transformed into a friendly neighborhood filled with fine restaurants, art shops and nightclubs.

His efforts to preserve and improve the avenue landed Schaer one of seven 2012 Montana Historic Preservation Excellence Awards presented Wednesday during a ceremony in Helena.

“It just is clear that Mike is unselfishly interested in revitalizing those historic buildings for the good of the city and not just for his own business, so we were really impressed with that,” said Christine Brown at the Montana Preservation Alliance, who handled the awards.

Billings business consultant Al Jones and state Sen. Lynda Moss nominated Schaer.

“Nobody has done more for this area than Mike Schaer,” said Gene Burgad, owner of The Rex and Schaer’s first Montana Avenue co-developer.

Schaer said he has invested an estimated $5 million buying and rehabilitating a dozen Montana Avenue buildings, not counting revenues from selling a few.

Starting in 1983, Burgad bought and remodeled The Rex, and Schaer bought and revitalized three buildings at 2405, 2407 and 2409 Montana Ave. This complex is home to his international computer business that now employs 175.

His next purchase was the Eagle Hotel, which he bought sight unseen because it was in such bad shape that he didn’t want to go in.

“The stairs were falling down. The roof was gone on it, and the rain and snow was coming in and there were pigeon droppings literally a foot deep,” he said.

In total, Schaer bought and fixed up a dozen buildings on Montana Avenue, using federal historic tax credits but almost no local public money.

About 15 years later, he bought the McCormick building with the intent of turning it into a European-style Internet hotel, where people would rent rooms to get high-speed Internet access.

“Maybe it was a novel idea, but it was a dumb idea because people were starting to get Internet in their homes here,” he said.

So he turned it into McCormick Café with office space upstairs.

Two decades ago, he bought The Carlin Hotel, now with extended-stay apartments upstairs and the NV Nightclub and The Q Cuisine restaurant downstairs. He bought the five dilapidated buildings that became the Log Cabin bakery and coffeehouse, which recently closed. When the street water main construction along Montana Avenue is completed, Schaer will be looking for another restaurant tenant, probably serving barbecue.

Some other Schaer projects include Café Italia restaurant, Rue Des Artistes, parking lots and more.

The equally worn down railroad depot across Montana Avenue was restored by other developers with federal aid and local grants and is fully leased. Trailhead Spirits, a distillery in the former Beanery, should open later this year.

Schaer sold a building to Venture Theatre and another just off Montana along North 23rd Street to CTA Architects/Engineers for $420,000.

“I said ‘I’ll sell it to you for the same price I bought it for.’ They said, OK, and they put their $4 million in,” he said.

Schaer also sold The Yellowstone Garage and, after several owners, now is an Italian restaurant called Ciao Mambo with a new microbrewery, Überbrew, next door.

The Gamble-Robinson building was emptied with a giveaway of more than 200,000 textbooks and now houses Carter’s Brewery and the Railyard Ale House. By the end of the month, the 19 apartments at the Tracy Apartments that Schaer and two partners remodeled will open.

Schaer didn’t do it alone.

Antique and art store owners and others remodeled their buildings as the revitalization effort spread.

Andy Nelson, owner of Western Pawn Brokers on Montana and 28th Street North, has refurbished 16 upstairs efficiency rooms at the Yellowstone Hotel and is waiting for a tenant to remodel the ground floor.

“Everybody else has been working on theirs for years and we had a lot of catching up to do,” Nelson said.

The Rainbow Bar also remodeled its space.

In the 1990s, Montana Avenue property owners spent a total of $1.2 million to install planters, landscaping, sidewalks and decorative crosswalks along Montana Avenue, according to Jones.

They spent about $750,000 installing the flower planters, a tradeout with the city for removing the parking meters, Schaer said. The trees are now 25 feet tall and trains no longer blow their whistles at three downtown intersections, a huge advantage to area businesses.

The revitalization is slowly spreading from Schaer’s three-to-four-block area down Montana Avenue.

Earlier this year, the Billings Army Navy Surplus remodeled a building at North 29th and moved across the street. Café DeCamp’s owners are remodeling a building at 2905 Montana Ave. and expect to be moved in by February.

Despite all the progress, stereotypes of the old days still remain and need to change, Schaer said.

“Montana Avenue is clean and safe and a lot has to do with the business improvement district — Lisa Harmon’s effort at the Downtown Billings Alliance,” he said. “We just don’t have issues with people hanging out anymore.”

After seven years effort to clean up the streets, including two community cops patrolling on bicycles, downtown Billings is clean and safe, said Harmon, executive director of the DBA.

“If you go to an event on Montana Avenue, everyone feels safe,” she said. “It’s dramatically different.”

Among other cultural events, Montana Avenue has hosted the successful Magic City Blues Festival for 11 years.

Schaer said he was surprised to hear about winning the historical preservation award.

“I guess other people knew about it. I didn’t,” he said.

The continued health of Montana Avenue and downtown Billings depends on having more downtown apartments, he said.

“There’s plenty of night life in downtown Billings, but the city needs about 2,000 people living downtown and that’s starting. But it’s been a long haul,” he said. “Montana Avenue was little things over many, many years, rather than a gigantic project that never gets done.”

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Business editor for the Billings Gazette.