Belgrade has long been thought of as a bedroom community to Bozeman, with a sleepy downtown and suburban feel.

“I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” Belgrade Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kristi Gee said.

In the past year or two, downtown Belgrade has seen a resurgence of economic activity. There’s more traffic, spots for vacant businesses are being filled, and Gee said she thinks business owners are taking more pride in their storefronts.

“I hate to see empty buildings,” she said. “It’s nice to have them all full.”

Gee said she thinks things are getting busier in downtown Belgrade, and she hopes to see it become more of a destination in and of itself.

As Belgrade grows alongside Bozeman, she said downtown is more poised to do that. The town just held its first Saturday Night Live, similar to Bozeman’s Music on Main, and several businesses have moved in and expanded in the historic district within the last month or so. Others, like Cosmic Pizza, are planning on soon opening locations there.

There’s also been a trend of buildings downtown getting facelifts. Awe Realty works all over the Gallatin Valley but decided to open its offices where the old Hub Bar & Casino used to be on Main Street in Belgrade. Extensively remodeling the space, it was one of the first businesses to start the trend, Gee said.

Chris Awe has acted as a broker for a handful of buildings in downtown Belgrade. In addition to buying his building on Main Street, he’s helped transfer ownership of the old Sacks building and is helping owners make improvements and find new tenants.

He has also been involved in bringing The Outpost to Belgrade. The 14-room microhotel is slated to open in early September, the first type of lodging of its kind in the area. Awe said he hopes it brings a more around-the-clock presence to Main Street and gets more people visiting bars, restaurants and other businesses.

Business in Belgrade is seeing an upward trend right now, he said.

“I get lots of people knocking on my door, asking if there’s any availability right now,” he said.

Part of that upward trend has to do with getting more “bang for your buck,” he said. As new subdivisions go up, there are simply more people in the area. And while property values are rapidly rising, it’s still generally cheaper to build or open a business in downtown Belgrade than in downtown Bozeman.

Awe said he’s liked working with Bozeman’s planning department, but going through planning in Belgrade is also usually faster. Bozeman’s planning and building departments have been struggling with worker shortages as the number of complex projects and applications they receive increases.

Still, while economic development is on the upswing in Belgrade, small business owners still deal with all the challenges that come with operating in a small town.

Rhonda Gilbert co-owns Center Ice Cafe in Belgrade and recently expanded to have extra seating for the cafe on weekends, when business has picked up the most.

As part of the expansion, she also put in an ice cream parlor and espresso bar to get people coming in on weekdays, when she struggles to get customers.

Smaller businesses like hers struggle when chain restaurants come in, she said. Though Belgrade is cheaper, her rent is still high, and she said she’d like to increase sales by 50 percent.

Her husband has terminal cancer, and though he has found a chemo treatment that has stopped the cancer from spreading and increased his longevity, it still costs about $5,000 a month, which has added to the stress of owning and operating a small business.

There’s a new airport business plaza going in, and she’s concerned airport visitors will go straight to businesses there and skip driving through downtown. She also doesn’t have the same capacity to advertise that larger chains do.

“That kind of worries us as a little guy,” she said. “Because they bring chains in and people forget about the little guys.”

Though she’s worried about some of the changes coming to Belgrade, she still loves the town, and she thinks many changes will be for the better. She can walk down the street and have four people honk and wave at her and see seven people she knows every time she goes to the grocery store.

With more people, there will be more to do and more activity.

“I love living out here — it’s nice and quiet,” she said. “I just see the struggle with the place growing and the larger businesses coming in.”

Abby Lynes can be reached at alynes@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2651. Follow her on Twitter @Abby_Lynes.

Abby Lynes covers business and the economy for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.