Doing Business On The ‘Other Side Of The Tracks’
By Gretchen Roufs,
Who would think it’s a good thing to be part of an organization that promotes the “other side of the tracks?” Stacey Wagner does.
Stacey, president and owner of KB Commercial Products, a Billings, Mont., jan/san distributor, is also the president of Old Town Neighbors Inc., an organization in Billings aimed at revitalizing the downtown area that in the early 1900s, was best known for its bars, cigar factories and brothels.
KB Commercial Products has been located on the south side of the tracks, in Old Town, since the company was founded in 1928.
“The railroad is what caused Billings to flourish,” says Stacey. “The railroad tracks — we call the tracks a ‘zipper’ — have really divided our part of town from the more prosperous part of downtown. The train depots in the old days had two distinctly different sides: the fancy side and the workingman’s side. To get to the back side of the depot, you actually had to cross the railroad tracks.”
The Old Town side of the tracks started to empty out in the 1970s. Only a few businesses kept operating, including KB Commercial Products.
The “fancier” part of downtown began its revival in the late 1990s, with new lofts, restaurants and stores. After awhile, the rejuvenated side of the tracks started to run out of space.
“Some far-thinking developers then started looking at our part of town where there was less traffic, larger buildings and more parking,” says Stacey.
Things started to change in Old Town about five years ago when someone bought one building and then started communicating with all the neighbors.
“It went nowhere at that time. However, a few years ago, the neighbors started talking again, and we began to forge an identity,” says Stacey. “We founded the Old Town Neighbors group in order to collectively do things for the neighborhood that, as individuals, we could not afford to do. Having a formal entity gives us more credibility to get things done.”
Stacey says her role with Old Town Neighbors is to keep people focused.
“As the president, I’m not the ideas person. I’m the one who works with the city on such things as parking, sidewalk clean-up, having the utilities buried underground, and getting safety crosswalks established,” she says. “I’m the point person who has to listen to all opinions and keep people from digging in their heels. I support the people who are good at what they’re doing… the architects, the financial people, the historic district designation people. My job is to keep the project together and to make sure that everyone is communicating.”
The Old Town Neighbors recently got three Old Town rail crossings designated as a “quiet zone,” a project that will garner about $900,000 in outside funding to add new signals and barricades. Stacey says their big focus now is to get the entire Old Town area officially designated as a historic district.
“I was a single mom, busy with raising my kids,” says Stacey. “Now that I have the kids raised and some other things out of the way, it’s time for me to participate in something outside of myself. I don’t do this Old Town work for business reasons. I do it because I believe there is value in being part of a greater cause.”