Building up downtown: community members speak out

By: 
Charlie Denison
Reporter

 

Patty Thompson, a Lewistown resident working to clean up downtown as part of the Arts and Entertainment District Association, walks her West Highland white terrier, Raleigh, down Main Street Thursday afternoon.

Photo by Charlie Denison

 

Going around the state, when talking about Lewistown, it seems what people enjoy the most is its charming Main Street. Like Grover’s Corner, Ohio, depicted in Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Our Town,” Lewistown – for many – has a timeless, pleasant feel people who live here take pride in.

“It’s got a beautiful, vintage Main Street,” people say.

“It’s quintessential Montana,” is another quote often heard.

But despite the praise, Lewistown’s Main Street is losing some of its luster, as a number of businesses recently closed: the Empire Café, Lola’s, TV Appliance, Captain Bob’s, Beans N Things and others.

Nevertheless, the heart of Main Street keeps beating, as some building owners continue to find ways to make downtown exciting and relevant.

For example, Dean Comes, President of First Bank (which owns the Montana Building), doesn’t just want to see his business succeed; he wants to give back to the community he loves dearly and see it thrive.

“Lewistown has given to First Bank over the years, so we made our commitment to the town by buying this property, to fix it up, build it up and fill it up,” Comes said. “We are about 95 percent full at this time. We’ve brought a lot of people back downtown. It’s been a great thing, I’d say, for both the downtown and for Lewistown.”

Accounting firms, attorneys’ offices, Dominga’s Café, Fergus Farm Mutual, Jenni Photography and more, Comes said the Montana Building stays plenty busy thanks to a lot of time and effort to make the building pleasant for tenants.

At the Montana Building, Comes said tenants have a lot of creative control. He even gives them an opportunity to design their office space.

“We do that in most of our cases,” Comes said, “and we make our rents according to what is decided. Usually they are somewhere in the middle. We aren’t the highest and we aren’t the lowest.”

Rent at the Montana Building can also be flexible. If the going gets tough for a tenant, Comes said he is usually willing to work with them on rent.

“We really try to out our businesses,” Comes said.

 

Making a difference

With the building being full, Comes said he believes there is more foot traffic downtown, and that’s what he likes to see.

On the other hand, Comes said he knows struggles will continue on Main Street, no matter how much success he has in the Montana building.

“It’s tough,” he said. “Main Street retail. I don’t care if you are in Lewistown, Miles City or another small Montana town, it’s getting very tough to compete with Amazon and the big box stores.”

Are there answers? Comes doesn’t know the answer to solving the retail problem, but he does believe there are ways to have a healthy Main Street without having to depend on retail, just as his building has done.

“Obviously a full Main Street would be healthy, but I don’t know if that’s realistic with the population we have here. It’s very difficult for those individual businesses to survive,” Comes said. “Honestly, I think downtown could use a little more green space. I’ve brought that up before, but no one wants to tear a building down downtown. I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Dave King, who owns the Power Mercantile Building (once in discussion as a possible building to tear down and turn into a parking lot), said he is opposed to the idea. He’d like to see the building utilized. But more than anything, he’d like to see it sold.

“We want to find a buyer,” he said, adding he’d like to see a buy/sell agreement work out in the future. “Having a historical building on the prominent 300-block of Main Street sit empty is an eyesore to the town, and something needs to give.”

The Power Mercantile Building used to be a hot spot for retail, King said, as they had a Reid’s and a mini mall, but as the internet blew up in popularity and as locals continued to do their shopping in Billings, Great Falls or other larger areas, King could see a problem arising. He just didn’t know how to prevent it or change it. Since Reid’s closed five years ago, he’s had potential buyers and potential businesses, but nothing has developed.

“We’re still hopeful,” King said, “but it’s been heartbreaking to have this building sit unused for so long. I do believe, however, Lewistown is going to roll through this difficult time. We are going to grow again. We have so much here.”

Nevertheless, it can be hard to stay positive when hearing complaints at meetings and social gatherings about the growing number of closed storefronts downtown.

“There are currently 14 storefronts closed on Main Street from 1st Avenue to 8th Avenue,” City Planner Duane Ferdinand said. “I think that means downtown retail still needs to search for its identity. The right mix of retail has to be figured out.”

 

Taking a chance

All the empty storefronts – albeit an eyesore – are also, to some, an opportunity.

The Judith Basin Bank building (part of a three building complex in the 500-block) owner and cattle broker Nicole Wines, for example, has made her presence known in the Lewistown area, investing in real estate (she recently became co-owner of the Judith Mountain Lodge) and giving opportunities to small business entrepreneurs. Since purchasing the Judith Basin Bank building (formerly occupied by City Billiards, Lombard’s, Flament’s and New York Life), Wines has had salons, boutiques, tenants, and – as of this month – the Church of Christ rent a space from her.

Wines said she is excited to offer opportunities on Main Street for entrepreneurs or people wanting to live downtown. That’s why she bought the building in the first place.

 “I believe the need and interest is out there,” she said. “People just need to take the chance.”

This goes for entrepreneurs, building owners, business owners, ranchers and community members of all ages and backgrounds. Whether interested in starting a business or looking to help businesses get started, Wines said it is important to try and move Main Street forward, and she’s working hard to do her part.

 “I like to get things done and not just talk about it or complain about what’s not getting done,” she said. “This is how I get involved, and getting involved is important. I don’t mind sacrificing my time toward helping the downtown as long as progress is made in the right direction.”

Getting involved as a building owner, however, is no easy task, Wines added, as she’s already had businesses close and has had complications and frustrations with City codes. Nevertheless, she continues to keep a positive attitude.

“When so many businesses have shut down and a lot of negative energy is out there, it’s hard to stay positive,” Wines said, “but I try my damndest. There are several others in the community who recognize and appreciate people like myself trying to help downtown survive. Some people may laugh and say there is no hope, but all we can do is try.”

 

Giving Main Street a clean sweep

Wines has her way of making a difference, and Patty Thompson has hers. A recently retired radiographer and established photographer, Thompson is putting her time and energy into cleaning up Lewistown. A member of the newly formed Lewistown Arts and Entertainment District Association, she is instrumental in organizing Operation Clean Sweep, a beautification project consisting of four concrete planters on each side of each block (58 total), additional trash receptacles, new benches, parklets, the removal of  “old derelict” parking meters and more within the Arts and Entertainment District.

“We are currently in various stages of implementation of the project,” Thompson said. “They say that things like revitalization happen in baby steps, but before long, all babies learn to walk, and then to run. This is my personal vision for Lewistown.”

Thompson, who has lived in Lewistown the past 40 years, said she feels fortunate to settle here.

“I have a deep love for Central Montana and the people who live here,” Thompson said. “Lewistown is, in my opinion, the crown jewel of Montana. We need to raise her up, dust her off and let her shine.”

And Thompson’s not alone, saying there are many people and organizations in place “working behind the scenes to revitalize our community.”

“I can think of many,” she said. “The A and E District, Recharge Our Community, the Chamber of Commerce, Lewistown Community Development Corporation, the Lewistown Downtown Association, Snowy Mountain Development Corporation, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, Lewistown Trails Committee, the Central Montana Foundation and the newly formed Tax Increment Financing group just to name a few.”

 

A lot of promise

Like Thompson, Comes said he is impressed with the wide array of organizations working together to help improve Main Street and Lewistown in general. It’s encouraging, he said, and knowing progress is being made and more progress is on its way, he’s able to take complaints such as “Main Street isn’t what it used to be” with a grain of salt. When he hears negative comments, he encourages the naysayers to take a look at how Main Street has survived and what it has now that remains promising.

Main Street, he said, is not dying.

“We are very fortunate we’ve had the upgrades to downtown that we’ve had over the years,” Comes said. “Look at Matt Sass and the Brooks Building, look at what Theo and Lisa Wright have done for Judith Theater. There has been a lot of money – millions – spent downtown in the last 10 years. It’s not all doom and gloom. There has been a lot of money put into our downtown. There definitely are positives.”

Comes also encourages people to look at the big picture, saying there is a lot of development all around town, and it should further prove to concerned citizens that there is hope Lewistown will grow.

“If you look at Lewistown in general, the number of projects that have taken place in the last 36 months, it’s phenomenal. Look at Century’s state-of-the-art shop, Tractor Supply, our new emergency room; there really has been a lot of commercial activity in Lewistown. And look at the City Pool. Add that to the list. And what about the plans for Creekside Park? That will be fabulous. It will be the gathering spot for everybody.”

Once Comes got started on the opportunities on the rise, it was hard for him to stop. He loves talking about it, as he said there are a lot of excellent things going on in town; things he feels people are taking for granted.

“This is what I like to point out when people start talking to me about how bad things are here,” Comes said. “We’ve made a lot of progress in the last three years. Sure, there will be some business owners that aren’t feeling that, but we’ve had a lot of progress and we’ll continue to have progress.”

 

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