Downtown is not dying, but it is changing

Jacques Rutten

It’s been said Lewistown is the heart of Montana. 

If you take that one step further you might say downtown is the heart of Lewistown. 

And in recent years, we’ve been having some heart issues.  

Not congestive failure or a full-blown heart attack, but I think we can all agree, our downtown has seen better days.  

Put in more straightforward terms, there are 17 empty storefronts right now on Main Street between the B&B Motel and McDonald’s. 

What makes those empty stores even more visible is the stark contrast between downtown and what is happening on the edges of town, especially the west side, where  businesses seem to be opening or expanding on a regular basis. 

In July of this year, my college-aged son drove into Lewistown from the west through all of the road construction and past the new TSC store and other expanded businesses. When he arrived at our house his first question was, “When did Lewistown become such a boomtown?”

I wasn’t quite sure how to answer him. My first thought was, “Are we booming?” My second thought was, “Have you been downtown lately?” 

The more I thought about his question, the more I began to realize that Lewistown is going through an interesting transition right now, and our downtown is at the center of that change. 

So what is happening with Lewistown’s downtown? Is it dying? Is it thriving? Or is this just part of a normal cycle, one we have been through before during our town’s 134-year history? 

Those were a few of the big questions we set out to answer two months ago when our news department began an in-depth look at Lewistown’s downtown. Some of our other questions included: What types of businesses are successful downtown and what types are not? What revitalization efforts have worked in other towns our size? What groups and organizations are working to improve downtown? Who are the owners of the empty buildings and what are they doing to attract new tenants? And which building owners have been successful in keeping their buildings occupied? And finally, we asked “What do you envision as the future of Lewistown’s downtown?”

Our goal in doing the reporting was not to come up with solutions for “fixing” or “revitalizing” downtown. Instead, we wanted to give readers an idea of where we are, where we have been, and what the future may hold.  

To answer those questions, we branched out in several directions and tried to expand our reporting to include insights from local, state and national levels.    

Managing Editor Deb Hill took a broad look at downtown shopping trends across the country. She also interviewed representatives from Montana communities that have revitalized their downtowns, such as Stevensville and Red Lodge. 

Reporter Charlie Denison focused his reporting on the owners of local buildings and businesses, asking them what is and isn’t working and what they would like to see change.  

Reporter Jenny Gessaman looked into the different organizations working to improve downtown and worked with the City of Lewistown to determine exactly what type of businesses we have downtown. 

For a historical perspective, we asked retired News-Argus reporter Jim Dullenty to take a look back at some of the highs and lows of Lewistown’s downtown and offer some insights on how the current state of our downtown compares with other periods. 

Jim also took a look at our local economy, interviewing state economists and local officials to get an idea of whether these are boom or bust times for Lewistown. 

So what is the takeaway from all of this research and reporting over the past few months? 

I think you could summarize our findings by saying Lewistown’s downtown is not dying, as some have claimed, but it is changing. And some of the changes are big ones. 

For those of us who long for the days when Main Street was lined with retail clothing and department stores such as The Fad, Footprints or Montgomery Ward’s... those times may be gone forever. But downtown will continue to be a place where people like to do business and gather together. Coffee shops, CPAs, beauty salons, financial advisors, attorneys, insurance companies, bars, restaurants and many other types of businesses will continue to find downtown an ideal location. Other types of businesses, that require a lot of space and parking, such as Shopko or Tractor Supply Company, will likely find the edges of town to be more suitable for their needs. 

We also learned that downtown building owners that are willing to work with tenants and try to accommodate their needs will eventually find willing tenants or buyers for their empty buildings. But it probably won’t happen overnight. And it will probably take some creative thinking to fill some of the big empty holes on Main Street, such as the former Reid’s store. 

One thing most everyone we spoke with agreed on is Lewistown’s downtown is one of our community’s greatest assets – right up there with our clear spring water. Even more importantly, we learned there are a lot of people who care deeply about downtown and who are working hard to ensure that our downtown remains viable for generations to come.  

Downtown will continue to be the heart of Lewistown. It is in need of some rehabilitation right now, but most signs point to a long life ahead. 


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