The demolition of the Southern Empire Emporium Restaurant Lounge & Casino last summer made way for new development on the southwest corner of Mullowney Lane and South Frontage Road.
Going up in its place is a sleek new Holiday Stationstore, which should be open this spring.
“It’ll be an improvement,” said Steve Zeier, head of the South Billings Urban Renewal District.
Still, a new convenience store across the street from another convenience store isn’t exactly the kind of new development Zeier envisions for his end of town.
Zeier is quick to point out that the southwest corner of Mullowney Lane and South Frontage Road is not in the South Billings Urban Renewal District; it sits just outside. The district begins on Mullowney and stretches east toward the center of Billings, not west.
But the construction of a new Holiday signals growth and that’s an encouraging sign, Zeier said.
“What I’m really excited for is the stuff behind there,” he said. “It feels like it got left behind.”
The west side of Mullowney Lane behind the Holiday construction site is lined by the Zeiler property, empty agricultural land boxed in on nearly every side by development. East and south of the fields are housing developments like Josephine Crossing and other projects undertaken by McCall Homes. To the north is Kelly Inn, Cracker Barrel and La Quinta Inn and Suites.
When development finally comes to the agricultural land there, it will transform the area, Zeier said.
Change has been slow in this corner of Billings but it has been consistent.
A year ago, what was the Red Lion Hotel on Mullowney Lane returned to its original moniker, the Billings Hotel and Convention Center. Owner Jeff Muri purchased the hotel in 1999 and operated it as the Billings Hotel and Convention Center until he franchised with Red Lion in 2016.
After a year and a half as a franchise, he decided he wanted his own brand back and so brought the Billings Hotel back under his sole ownership. Muri realized he liked being the one to call the shots; he’d been a hotelier for 18 years before signing on with Red Lion.
By the spring, however, Red Lion was back on that end of town.
The owners of the hotel at the corner of Midland Road and Mullowney Lane — nextdoor to Muri’s — ended their franchise agreement with the Radisson Hotel chain and joined up with Red Lion.
It was the second brand change for the seven-story hotel in almost as many years. The Florida-based development company Inner Circle purchased the hotel in December 2015 when it was the Holiday Inn and quickly bought in with Radisson.
Unhappy with Radisson, Inner Circle saw an opportunity to join with the Red Lion franchise when Muri cut ties and returned his property to the Billings Hotel and Convention Center.
Along with the hotel, Inner Circle also owns the now-defunct Montana Convention Center next door. Last year, representatives with Inner Circle looked at razing the building and constructing a large, new state-of-the-art convention center in its place. The group even had an architect’s rendering drawn up.
But in April they pulled the plug after the Billings City Council voted to spend $100,000 on its study for the One Big Sky District, which includes plans for a large-scale convention center and events venue downtown.
Zeier has watched it all closely and, along with Inner Circle, was ready to pitch another idea for the old Montana Convention Center site.
Its location makes it the perfect spot for the proposed South Billings Aquatic and Recreation Center, he said.
Last month the South Billings Urban Renewal District held a community meeting seeking feedback on the idea and to find out what residents would want in a recreation center.
More than 50 people turned out and expressed desires to see a sports complex that includes an indoor ice rink and indoor pool. The building’s design, what it will include and most importantly its cost is still up in the air, Zeier said. But he’s hopeful plans will begin to coalesce in the coming months.
In the meantime, other corners along Billings southern corridor are starting to see improvements.
The city bumped up the timeline on its King Avenue East reconstruction project, which will rebuild the road between Orchard and Jackson, and improve the pedestrian sidewalk network there. Work should begin this summer.
And just north of King Avenue East along Hallowell Lane, Optimist Park is getting new playground equipment.
“The way we look at it, it’s reinvigorating the neighborhood from the outside in,” Zeier said. “That will get more people to invest in their homes, in their properties.”