A year and a half ago, Albertsons was gearing up to build a new grocery store on a big lot at the northeast corner of 54th Street West and Grand Avenue.
In early 2017, the grocery store chain purchased the empty field and the city approved a special review to allow a drive-thru for a pharmacy on the property. The special review was required because the drive-thru would face a residential neighborhood.
It's an attractive location with a growing stream of traffic. Over the last few years, that corridor along Grand Avenue has seen construction of a half dozen new housing developments, a new middle school and the relocation of a casino and lounge along with a handful of planned retail shops.
But the field Albertsons bought is still as empty as the day it was purchased. Nothing has happened on the land.
Charlie Hamwey, the broker who helped sell the lot to the Boise, Idaho-based grocery chain, said that while it appears to be taking a while, nothing has changed.
"They're still anticipating building an Albertsons there," he said.
Mike Walker, a broker with NAI Properties, represents Albertsons statewide; he declined to talk about the specifics of the project.
But Hamwey has a theory as to why it's taken the grocery chain so long to get started: WinCo.
WinCo Foods, a discount grocery store chain also based in Boise, signed a lease agreement for the old Kmart property at 24th Street West and Central Avenue last fall. Earlier this year, WinCo demolished the Kmart building and began constructing its new store, which should open early next year. It'll be WinCo's first store in Montana.
Hamwey believes that as soon as WinCo started looking at Billings as a place to launch its brand in Montana — which would have been roughly about the time Albertsons bought the property at 54th Street West and Grand — Albertsons pumped the brakes, waiting to see what would happen.
"I believe it's because of WinCo," Hamwey said.
Regardless of the reason, Albertsons is still plenty interested in the West End of Billings.
A year ago, a 16-acre parcel on the northwest corner of 62nd Street West and Rimrock Road was zoned community commercial by the city and Albertsons expressed interest.
And then this summer in June the property received a preliminary subdivision plat from the city's planning division to create several building lots. The final subdivision has not yet been submitted to the city. The project's been dubbed the Coal Creek Subdivision.
In July, the owners of the Coal Creek Subdivision entered into an agreement with Albertsons to sell the grocery chain 11 lots of the subdivision — about 13.5 acres — directly at the intersection of Rimrock Road and 62nd Street West.
Albertsons has declined to comment on any of its new developments.
Development along Grand Avenue, from the empty fields at 54th Street West to the plots at the corner of Zimmerman Trail, has picked up over the last few years.
Last month, crews started work on a new 40-acre subdivision at the northwest corner of Zimmerman and Grand. The first building on the property will be a Town Pump convenience store, the second Town Pump in less than a mile on that stretch of Grand. The company also has a convenience store, liquor store and casino on the northeast corner of Grand and Shiloh.
The subdivision, Home Place, is owned by Billings Opportunities LLC and is being constructed by CMG Construction.
Back at 54th and Grand, despite no activity by Albertsons on its property, construction of the The Den and other retail space has moved quickly since it received approval from the city to build last November.
The Den, a lounge and casino, is leaving its longtime home at West Park Promenade to relocate to new digs on Grand, where it will sit on the opposite side of 54th Street from the Albertsons plot. Two blocks west of the development is Ben Steele Middle School and a pair of residential subdivisions.
Along with The Den, developers plan to build a multi-tenant building on the lot. The Den, which has been at West Park for five decades, would be one of a handful of businesses that would set up shop there, taking possession of a 5,000-square-foot space.
Across town, development in the Heights has brought construction to the corner of Bench Boulevard and Wicks Lane. Work is also happening on Main Street at the 4 Seasons Shopping Center, where Pizza Ranch is currently building its second Billings location.
The project on the southeast corner of Wicks and Bench started earlier this summer. Crews are working on a 36-unit assisted living facility that will be called Heights Assisted Living. The city issued a building permit in July 2018.