BILLINGS - As many businesses struggle with the economic fallout of COVID-19, one local nonprofit coffee shop is set to open its doors for the first time—all in service of Billings South Side community.
Colin Sauskojus, newly minted supervisor of Rail Line Coffee, said the hills and valleys that the shop faced on its way to completion amid a pandemic were conquered with hard work, lots of prayer, and a little luck.
"All I can say is I know it's not me," Sauskojus said. "It's God moving through us and through the community and loving those around us and really getting this project up and off the ground."
Rail Line Coffee, with a grand opening ceremony set for Aug. 22, is the first step in a larger plan by its parent organization, Community Leadership & Development, Inc., to jump-start the economic development of Billings South Side.
But as the nonprofit's executive director Eric Basye says, the ultimate goal of the organization is much broader.
"One of the words we talk about is 'shalom,' which is this beautiful Hebrew word," Basye said. "There's no great English translation, but the one that I like is 'harmonious peace,' or 'human flourishing.' How do we seek the good or the human flourishing of the South Side? That's really our mission."
The nonprofit is well on its way to achieving that dream. Established in 1981, its programs include everything from a women's transitional living ministry to "Youth Works," a faith-based organization serving South Side children.
Rail Line Coffee is the next pillar of the group's vision for the South Side, a nonprofit coffee shop designed to break the area's cycle of poverty by prioritizing the employment of South Side residents and paving the way for new businesses to do the same.
Sauskojus found his way to the nonprofit after finishing a degree in science in Wyoming. He said the experience of drawing up a business plan in two weeks and seeing the project through the throes of a pandemic was rewarding.
"Certainly there's been huge moments of trial, of stress, of frustration and setback, but it's not the killer," Sauskojus said. "I've never found anything that's been more filled with joy, excitement and energy around this sort of thing."
But it wasn't always joy at the reins of the Rail Line project. The Gianforte Family Foundation purchased the run-down gas station that would become Rail Line Coffee and donated it to the nonprofit in 2018—a huge boost for the organization, Basye said. They set a goal of opening in summer 2020.
However, after the first big construction push began in early March, the COVID-19 pandemic reached Montana and quickly ground work to a halt.
What followed were several weeks of uncertainty around whether to push ahead with the project or wait for better conditions.
"We just had to make some game-time decisions," Sauskojus said. "Do we continue? Do we pause? Do we even hire people?"
After much "prayer and petitioning" among Sauskojus, Basye and the rest of the nonprofit team, the answer was to move forward, and the reason came down to the importance of Rail Line to the community, especially in light of a difficult recovery from the pandemic ahead.
Basye described how intense community interest in the project was, even at the height of Montana's stay-at-home order, and how it helped him realize what was at stake.
"I can't tell you how many neighbors we had who would walk by or drive by, and they were just curious to see what was happening," Basye said. "And then to see this transformation and to hear about what was coming in this space, for a community, I think it was just a morale booster."
For at least one South Side resident, the impact of Rail Line is already being felt. Christian Nava, 16, is one of the seven employees training as a barista before the big opening.
He said the coffee-making caught his interest, but after applying for over 20 different jobs, he didn't have high hopes. That changed when Sauskojus contacted him, offering opportunity in a time when opportunity is often difficult to come by.
"If I'm being honest," Nava said of his newfound employment, "it's great. I have a fun staff environment that I can go to if I need, and it's great here, actually."
Over 50% of staff at Rail Line Coffee are South Side residents, and Sauskojus hopes to increase that number as time goes by. For Nava, belief in the power of a business like Rail Line is strong.
"It'll probably improve the South Side and give us more credit, 'cause we're more seen as the bad side of town," he said. "But there's a lot of good people around here."
An impact that Basye and Sauskojus hope will have a wide reach. Using data from the 2010 census, Community Leadership & Development's website reports nearly 30% of households in the district fall under "extremely low income" classification. Almost 50% live in low-income housing.
A number of these factors contribute to what Basye calls "the exodus problem:" individuals and organizations with roots in the South Side growing up and taking their skills and talents elsewhere, despite an affinity toward their home.
"If we can create an economy and jobs in the South Side, not only is it an opportunity to capture money from the South Side and the city, but we can reuse and re-purpose those funds to dump back into the city," Basye said.
The executive director is optimistic Rail Line Coffee can do just that. With a location at the corner of South Twenty-Ninth Street and First Avenue South that draws nearly 10,000 cars every day, the shop is poised for success. Nava is hopeful, too, that a new social hub can draw his community closer.
"If people need to go hang out somewhere and get something, they can just come here, to the coffee shop," Nava said. "It will have a big impact."
In a time when certainties are hard to come by, the successful start of a new chapter in business on the South Side seems as close as they come: Sauskojus said a Facebook post about Rail Line Coffee's grand opening generated over 25,000 interactions.
The interest has Sauskojus eager to see what the future holds for a shop that has yet to open its doors.
"We see the South Side as this really rich place that has a lot of opportunity for growth and strength that are under-realized," he said. "If we can serve as the first advocates for people who can't find employment on their own, we would consider that a huge success."
Rail Line Coffee is located at 101 S. 29th St. and will open Saturday, Aug. 22. For more information about Community Development & Leadership, Inc., you can visit its website.