The 540-space Empire Parking Garage is receiving rave reviews from the people who’re using it the most for now — guests at the Northern Hotel.
“As far as parking garages go, it’s great — clean, new, spacious and roomy,” said Mike Nelson, who together with his brother Chris owns the hotel, at 19 N. Broadway, as well as two restaurants, Ten and Bernie's, and a boutique at the same location. “We continue to offer valet parking, because that’s the kind of service experience we want to offer our customers. But the garage is a great little operation, and we’re lucky to be part of it.”
He said he’d just spoken with a guest Tuesday afternoon “who thanked me and was excited that the garage was there,” Nelson said.
The hotel has 185 slots — about one-third of the parking available at the new garage — in the western portion of the new structure, which is on Montana Avenue between Broadway and N. 27th Street. Fifty-five spots are available for hourly use by the public, with the rest leased out long-term or reserved for retail establishments that plan to open in the garage during the coming months.
The Empire Parking Garage is the city’s fourth downtown parking structure, and the only one not known by a numeral. The others are called Park 1, Park 2 and Park 3. The first two were built in the late 1970s; the third was completed in 1991.
Nelson said Northern Hotel guests like the garage’s ease of use and its proximity. A room key gets the guest into the garage, and a second-floor sky bridge — paid for by the hotel — leads guests straight into the hotel.
During the first two weeks of September, hotel valets helped city officials get any bugs out of the computer that runs the parking gate at the Empire.
Last week was a “soft” opening for the new structure, one where city officials didn’t publicize its availability much, but allowed short-term parking as well as long-term lease holders to park there.
“We will tweak on it for a while,” Nelson said, “but it’s ready for general use. We are getting better every day.”
“We are so lucky to be running a business in a city like Billings,” Nelson said. City staff has been “amazingly friendly and cooperative” throughout construction of the garage, which saw construction delays caused by weather last winter. “City council members take their job as stewards of the city’s money very seriously, and they worry about keeping the downtown vibrant and fresh. You can’t beat that.”
Tracy Scott, Billings’ parking manager, said that a few long-term spaces remain at the top of the structure, at the rate of $25 per month, but the covered parking, at $50 per month, is in short supply.
Short-term spaces are available for 25 cents per hour and $1 per hour after two hours, with a maximum of $5 per day.
Scott said the soft opening, which began Sept. 15, allowed for a smoother operation once the gate came up.
“We didn’t want a whole lot of traffic until we made sure that everything was fully operational, that the pay stations were working well,” Scott said.
The computer at the pay station will validate parking for people using retail space within the garage. Another bonus is what Scott calls a grace period, in which a customer won't be charged if they decide they don't want to use the garage after 10 minutes.
Nelson said he has people coming and going to and from the parking garage, and that foot traffic should prove good for business, he said. “There are two walk-out entrances to the garage — at the east and west ends,” he said. “Both of those will be walking traffic past our storefronts and the boutique.”
He expects the parking garage to boost the number of large meetings and other events to be held at the hotel, which has facilities for 1,000 people.
“Big meetings, big fundraisers — there could be 300 or 400 cars all at once,” he said. “One hundred eighty-five spaces will get used up quickly.”
“It’s a pretty building,” Nelson said of the $13 million structure. “It’s a big step up.”