After a construction process beset by harsh winter weather, funding delays and the lack of a proper building permit, the Empire Parking Garage on the north side of Montana Avenue is set to open its five upper parking levels by July 1.
The upper levels will be owned jointly by the city of Billings and the Northern Hotel, which owned the old parking garage that Empire will replace. Mike Nelson, the owner of the Northern Hotel, could not be reached for comment.
Construction on the three businesses that will be housed in the 15,600 square foot street level of the garage will begin shortly after July 1.
“At least one of the retail purchases has to close on July 1 before construction can begin,” said Assistant City Administrator Bruce McCandless, who is in charge of the project. “I know that at least one of the parties is already working on architectural drawings for their space, so I’m thinking that we’ll start seeing some of that construction once those properties get transferred.”
The city has signed purchase offers for 100 percent of the retail space in the garage. The three offers have been from Asian Sea Grill, First Montana Title owners Kelly and Quinn Donovan, and Walker’s Grill owner Bill Honaker.
The Donovans will purchase 7,900 square feet on the west side of the property for $46 a square foot. They plan to move First Montana Title there from its current downtown location at 204 29th St. The business’ other location at 2800 Central will remain open.
The middle 2,700 square feet are being purchased by Asian Sea Grill for approximately $52 a square foot.
The east 5,000 square feet at the corner of 27th Street and Montana Avenue will be purchased by Honaker, who had a right of first refusal to purchase the space, for $52 a square foot.
Honaker said he has not decided how he will use the space he has agreed to purchase.
“There’s so many fluid parts to it all in terms of them getting done with construction, and the city deciding what they’re doing with all the space,” he said. “I just find that it’s easier to wait until I own it and then make a decision.”
“People ask if it’s going to be a restaurant or not,” he added. “I didn’t necessarily buy it for that. It’s a restaurant space, and it’s designed for that … but for now I’m just kind of waiting and seeing.”
“Waiting and seeing” could be the motto for the entire Empire project –especially the waiting part. Originally, the six-story garage was set to be completed by February of this year.
However, it faced many hurdles, including one of the most severe winters in years. In addition, Sletten Construction found in February that it did not have the proper “foundation package” permit, postponing work for a week. In addition, demolition on the old parking garage couldn’t be completed until all the tax increment bonds used to finance the project were sold, and they were not sold until March.
The many delays experienced by the $12 million construction project have been especially frustrating for drivers on Montana Avenue. The project has taken up one of the driving lanes since January and created a bottleneck on the very busy street.