Annual downtown conference highlights growth in Great Falls’ downtown scene
At the 10th Annual Montana Downtown Conference, which was held in Great Falls this week, about 100 business owners, developers, government officials and more gathered to discuss what’s working in downtowns across Montana and ways to improve.
Friday morning, a panel focused on business development opportunities in the downtown and included Joan Redeen from the Great Falls Business Improvement District and some of the partners of the new cocktail bar coming to Great Falls.
Jason Nitschke of the Small Business Development Center at the Great Falls Development Authority was also a part of the panel and encouraged business owners or those looking to open a business to talk to city and county officials early on to avoid problems in the development process.
Redeen spoke about the pedlet that was installed in front of the Mighty Mo Brewing Company on Central Avenue this summer.
According to Mighty Mo, they had a 40 percent increase in sales and attributed 20 percent of that to the pedlet and being able to add 30 additional seats to the establishment. Five new staff members were also hired over the summer.
Redeen said the pedlet pilot this summer helped combat some common misconceptions about downtown: that nothing ever happens downtown and that downtown isn’t safe.
“This has dispelled that myth a little bit,” Redeen said.
Downtown businesses, residents and city officials often note those positives while also acknowledging there is room for improvement on filling up vacant buildings and addressing vagrants and crime in the downtown area.
Redeen said that when the pedlet was first installed, panhandling was an issue, but was quickly addressed when Mighty Mo hired additional staff to have a greater presence in the outdoor area and politely ask panhandlers to move along. As people got used to the pedlet, panhandling became less of an issue, Redeen said.
Redeen and city staff are working to develop a pedlet program and proposed changes to the city parking ordinances include provisions for pedlets. Since they take up parking spaces, it would be treated like a courtesy spot and business owners would pay for those spots as Mighty Mo did this year.
Six or seven other downtown restaurants have expressed interest in adding pedlets to their sidewalks in the future, Redeen said.
The City of Great Falls was recently awarded $8,000 from the Montana Department of Commerce for the BID and the Downtown Development Partnership to expand the pedlet program.
A conference attendee asked Redeen about the impact of the pedlet and lost parking spaces.
Redeen said it was a lot of just two parking spaces, but the business pays the courtesy parking rate for both of those spaces. The businesses across the street don’t always have parking right in front of their stores since people are going to Mighty Mo, but it’s a good problem to have, Redeen said, since it’s drawing people to the downtown.
Historic Tax Credits
A part of restoring downtowns across Montana is use of the historic tax credits, according to Chere Jiusto, executive director of the Montana Preservation Alliance.
Jiusto was part of Friday’s panel and discussed historic tax credits and the projects they’ve helped fund, including the Arvon Block in Great Falls.
“This is a really progressive town,” Jiusto said, in the innovative projects centered around heritage preservation.
So many downtowns in Montana are historic, she said, and since 1990, there have been 71 projects in Montana that used historic tax credits totaling $72.8 million. The total value of the federal tax credit for those projects was $14.5 million and the state value of historic tax credits was $3.4 million, Jiusto said.
“So many of these projects aren’t done by giant corporations,” she said. Instead, most are personal projects and undertaken by local individuals, families and groups.
Many buildings that are now success stories had been vacant for years, others wouldn’t have been able to make needed improvements without the tax credits. Those include the Sears building in Butte, upgrades to the Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton, Borden Hotel in Whitehall and the Hotel Arvon in Great Falls.
The tax credits are left out of the current federal tax reform proposals, Jiusto said. More information about the tax credit and the alliance’s effort to preserve it can be found here.
Tim Peterson and Scott Reasoner also spoke on Friday’s panel. They’re two of the six partners bringing Enbar, a new cocktail bar, to downtown Great Falls.
“We really love downtown,” Peterson said.
Peterson was involved in The Breaks Alehouse and Grill and said he learned a lot of lessons and took on a lot of debt.
So for this go round, they wanted to keep it simple and avoid taking on lots of debt.
They spent a lot of time looking at buildings downtown and when Big Sky Bakery closed across the street for Peterson’s office, they got in touch with the building owner. Turned out they had just signed a lease for Cory Block Bakery.
Awhile later, the building owners called back since the bakery wasn’t using all the space and there was an opportunity to share the space.
There were a lot of details to hammer out and everything concerning shared space, who’s open when and selling what and other logistical issues are spelled out in their lease agreements. It’s less expensive Peterson and Reasoner said to share rent costs and creates opportunities for promoting both businesses, though they’ll have two distinct entrances.
Construction for Enbar is going on now and they haven’t set an opening date yet, Reasoner said.
Other Enbar partners Andy Ferrin, Tom Jacobson, Tiana Ford and Mike Hallahan, the executive chef.
Peterson said they’re looking to partner with other local businesses and have local beer on tap with mostly Montana spirits. They’ll also purchase bread from the bakery.
Peterson still owns liquor license from Breaks, so they’re working to sell it to new business.
Peterson and Reasoner said they want to be a part of the building energy downtown.
“We love what everyone else is doing,” Peterson said.
He said he’s been here since 1989 and he used to walk down Central Avenue and see maybe one person walking.
“It feels like downtown is picking up steam,” Reasoner said.
Right now, everyone starting up downtown is doing different things and there isn’t much overlap yet, Reasoner said, but eventually there could be overlap and downtown would become more of a destination than going to singular places.
“We’re not the first one blazing this path,” Reasoner said. “We’re feeding off what others have done.”
They’re following others, he said, “that took that risk and we’re happy to be a part of it. As downtown grows, the potential becomes limitless.”
Gary Hackett has developed several apartment buildings downtown and is now developing a building on the 500 block. It houses Jumping Monkeys and Escape the Falls and Hackett is hoping to open an events center in the remainder of the building.
During the downtown conference, someone asked about losing parking spaces to the pedlet at Mighty Mo.
Hackett said he did a survey of the parking availability around his building and found there are 1,100 parking spaces within a few block radius.
“It’s a huge misconception that there’s a shortage of parking downtown,” Hackett said to the conference attendees.
Escape the Falls has added Halloween rooms that opened last week and will remain open for the next six to eight months, she said.
Those rooms include a zombie/torture chamber room and the other is an asylum.
“It’s fun, something different to do downtown,” she said of the escape rooms.
Because the escape rooms are new to Great Falls in general, Bostick said they haven’t done much advertising but they’ve been doing well.
She said that Jumping Monkeys was previously located outside the downtown, but since their move to the 500 block of Central Avenue, business has just about doubled.
Bostick said having Enbar across the street will likely help their business and her Jumping Monkeys has been good for Amazing Toys and Dragonfly Dry Goods since parents often need last-minute gifts or want to kill time during children’s parties.
From her vantage point behind the glass storefront, Bostick said it’s hardly ever dead downtown, except for maybe Sunday mornings.
“We’re always excited when a new business is popping up, it’s good for downtown,” Bostick said.
20 Years Downtown
Alison Fried and Dragonfly Dry Goods are celebrating two decades downtown in November.
During the conference, Fried led a tour of downtown and heard from out-of-towners that they loved the bike racks, art and other subtle details.
“People love our downtown, we should love it too,” Fried said.
Fried, Dragonfly’s owner, said she started small, then added square footage and later purchased the building.
“I’ve never not thought downtown was great,” she said.
“It’s easy to say there’s been fun growth. If you look at the last 3-5 years, there’s a lot of new fun things,” Fried said.
She said she believes businesses will come and go downtown, but many will be successful and stick around.
“It takes a lot of guts” to start downtown, Fried said.
She said the downtown does have issues that business owners, city officials and others continue to work on such as parking, transients, cleanliness, etc.
“We talk about this all the time,” Fried said. “We have to have these conversations, if we don’t then things are moving. Otherwise, things are stagnant.”
The Hi-Line Climbing Center
In May, The Hi-Line Climbing Center celebrated a year of operation.
There’s a bouldering gym, some outdoor space and owner Brian Thompson said they’re always working on ideas for more features.
The building is almost 110 years old and was previously a warehouse that always had an auto related past, Thompson said.
Thompson and his wife, Abby, remodeled the space, doing most of the work themselves.
Thompson said they have some friends who’ve talked about the downtown being a place to avoid when they were in high school. But now there’s a lot of enthusiasm for new things, though it wanes fast.
“You’re the belle of the ball and then it goes away,” Thompson said.
The Thompsons are part of the Downtown Safety Alliance, a group that talks about development and improving the downtown. They do report cards amongst themselves and are working on ideas for best block style competitions to encourage clean and safe spaces downtown.
For the Thompsons, downtown was attractive because of the low property costs, proximity to other businesses like the brewery and restaurants. And dotting Is and crossing Ts with the city wasn’t too tricky.
“I thought it was a welcoming business environment,” Thompson said. “The city wasn’t too painful for us.’
Parking is a challenge since they don’t have a parking lot and there’s only a few spaces in front of the gym at 608 1st Ave S. But the city was flexible and didn’t require them to have a parking lot, Thompson said.
They’re “really optimistic” about the longterm, but that they have to hustle and come up with ideas and programs that work in the Great Falls community.
They’ve started a class with Great Falls College MSU.
Earlier this fall, they started the first climbing team with about 10 kids. The team goes to competitions and will give kids options since colleges have scholarships and the Olympics now include climbing, Thompson said. They also work with EagleMount Great Falls and AWARE.
It’s been fun, he said, “helping start a climbing scene.”
Thompson said whenever you have more people in a concentrated area, there will be problems, but groups like the Downtown Safety Alliance continue to work on those issues.
He also said there’s momentum building downtown and they’re happy to be a part of it.
“Every time a business opens up, it’s good for everybody,” Thompson said. “Any time you spend a dollar downtown, you should feel good about it. It goes to a neighbor, friend, family.”