BOZEMAN – After the explosion that claimed one life and 8 downtown businesses, it took a community effort to restore Bozeman’s 200 block of Main Street.
(Editor’s note: This is part 4 of a 4-part series)
In the days and weeks after the blast, it was no sure bet that Bozeman’s downtown would return to its former glory.
“There are a lot of towns where they don’t recover from these large explosions,” said Bozeman City Commissioner Jeff Krauss.
Left in a pile of rubble along the 200 block of Main Street or severely damaged, were The American Legion Hall, Boodles, LillyLu, Montana Trails Gallery, Pickle Barrel, Rocky Mountain Rug, The Rocking R, Starky’s and Tolstedt Architects.
“If you drive down Main Street today it’s hard to imagine what was sitting there ten years ago,” said Steve White, former Gallatin County Commissioner.
“Within a year, 5 of the 8 businesses that had to close down because of the event had reopened, all of them downtown,” said Chris Naumann, Downtown Bozeman Partnership.
Nearly everyone we spoke with has high praise for the American Legion Post. After all, they were the first ones to rebuild and set the example for the entire block.
“And that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone,” said Krauss. “These are the guys that are trained to run towards the sound of gunfire. For them to run in and plant the flag in Bozeman, set the tone for how Bozeman was going to move forward from this.”
“There was a concerted effort and a strategic plan to basically reopen downtown,” said Naumann.
A television advertisement that was seen as rebuilding efforts were underway stated: “ We’ll always have that vibe and that sort of heartbeat of a great local downtown where people are just driven to.”
NorthWestern Energy paid for television ads, but business owners credit the people of Bozeman with powering the comeback, starting on day one.
“We didn’t even have to ask and there were flatbeds of plywood showing up, before nightfall every window was boarded up and secure,” said Naumann.
“It became a team effort for the people of Bozeman as people showed up and brought food,” said Krauss.
“(It) Brings people together and you create a stronger bond,” said Rocking R Owner Mike Hope. “I think I’m closer to the community as a result of what happened, and you don’t take that for granted.”
In the aftermath of the blast, downtown business people also came closer together.
“The entire community downtown just came together to help and heal one another,” said NorthWestern Energy’s Heather Bellamy.
“It felt like if we could be supporting each other, the rest would follow,” said Deirdre Quinn, Owner of Indulgence.
“We never paid any attention to our neighbors before, and it was kind of amazing, but now it’s like everybody helps us and we help them,” said Len Albright, American Legion Post.
That first year after the explosion, the American Legion began a new tradition for Bozeman, a Memorial Day parade, reportedly a first since 1964.
Now the last building is going up to fill the gap left by the blast. That’s something even the newest business owner on the block is happy to see.
“Everyone’s really excited to see it done and finally have those two spaces built back up,” said Ashley Cole, Owner of Ashley Cole Boutique.
To a person, there is praise for law enforcement, all the fire departments that responded even the municipal workers and Northwestern Energy crews who stepped up after the explosion.
“I was very impressed with the first responders,” said White.
“Even with the loss, to be a part of that team, you know, everybody should be proud of the way we served the community that day,” said Mark Lachapelle, former Bozeman Police Deputy Chief.
While some may have questioned the future of the downtown after the explosion, Chris Naumann never wavered.
“I was extremely confident of, literally the power of this place, and the strength of the community,” he said.
While many single out Naumann as the guiding hand of the recovery, he demurs, saying it was a group effort. This Sunday at 6:30 a.m. on KBZK and KXLF-TV, you can see an in-depth episode of the explosion with extended interviews on this week’s edition of Face the State.
Reporting by John Sherer for MTN News