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Downtown in 2024: Some Billings businesses see opportunity, others crime in city hub

Downtown Billings
Posted at 6:37 PM, Jan 03, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-03 20:37:43-05

It's a new year and there are changes in downtown Billings: Some businesses are expanding and digging deeper roots, while others are leaving, feeling forced out by rising crime.

Glenn Fournier, the owner of an auto body shop that specializes in imports, Metric Plus, just opened his new shop in the Heights on Tuesday.

One thing he's not unpacking in the new shop, is a bulletproof vest that he says became a necessity at his old location downtown.

”We had vehicles rifled through cars stolen from us. We had somebody drive through the fence, a stolen vehicle ran through a fence, damaged customer cars. It was just every day it was a new event," Fournier said.

Fournier remembers an incident that finally pushed him to move the shop from its spot on Sixth Avenue North, where it operated for 50 years.

“The straw that broke the camel's back was I had customers tell me they were afraid to come down and see me," Fournier said.

Fournier, who used to work at the Montana Rescue Mission, saw changes in the previous neighborhood.

“Things changed though from when I was out on the streets doing street rescue and stuff," Fournier said. "It seems like everybody has a gun. Everybody has a knife, hence, I would vest up if I had an issue down there at night or I had to go to the shop at night."

But not every downtown business is experiencing the same problems.

“We've always experienced a strong downtown. We all have always felt safe," said Matt Blakeslee, executive director of Art House.

Art House, a local movie theater, just reopened its downtown location after a large expansion.

"People are coming here to experience art, culture, food and shopping and so many different things along with all the business offerings that are offered as well," Blakeslee said. "So we didn't honestly think about anywhere else that we wanted to be because downtown was where we needed it to happen."

Both Fournier and Blakeslee see downtown as the center of life and business in Billings.

"Downtown is where we always wanted to be. We believe that downtown is really the heartbeat of the community," Blakeslee said.

But Fournier says he would need to see changes before moving back downtown.

”Unless the vagrancy, the street corner stuff, and other things that just signal to people that they should be concerned about the area they're in, until that changes, it'd be really difficult to go back," Fournier said.