On a sunny Friday evening in April, a couple hundred Helenans shuffled about the city's Sixth Ward, listening to live music, sampling some fresh-baked goods and doing a bit of antiquing.
Like the Sixth Ward Garden Park's emerging flowers, the crowds that evening were a sign of new life for the quirky neighborhood.
Helena's Sixth Ward, just east of Montana Avenue and south of the railroad tracks, is in the midst of a renaissance thanks to carefully mapped-out urban renewal and community buy-in. The neighborhood's outdated reputation of urban blight and decay has given way to a flurry of new businesses and rising property values.
When the Helena City Commission approved the creation of the Railroad Urban Renewal District that encompasses the Sixth Ward in 2016, the taxable value of properties across had risen nearly 50% over the previous decade except for the Sixth Ward.
In the same time span, 2006 to 2016, more than a third of the properties in within the Sixth Ward lost value while others increased in value at a far slower rate than properties outside the district.
That urban renewal district designation was accompanied by a tax increment financing (TIF) district, meaning property tax revenue increases over what was currently collected goes toward improving the district.
Helena Community Development Director Sharon Haugen said in an interview Friday that the city's priorities for TIF funding in the early years included sidewalk and stormwater infrastructure upgrades. About $50,000 of TIF funds were allocated to such projects.
Another $20,000 was awarded to Helena developer Ray Kuntz to help fund the demolition of an old building in the area.
Kuntz is also a member of the investor group developing the Seeley Building, a mixed-use, multistory structure that includes a blend of retail and office space along with upper-level housing, some of which is deed-restricted affordable housing, on the site of a former city bus depot. That project was awarded about $53,600 of the city's Downtown Urban Renewal District TIF funds by the city commission Monday to pay for nearly half of the sidewalk infrastructure installation costs, which also includes installing boulevard landscaping and lighting.
The city subsidized infrastructure upgrades in the Sixth Ward have paid off. That TIF district's funds are projected to sit at about $300,000, according to Haugen, which the city hopes to use to attract future development. The city intends to match developers investments in approved Sixth Ward projects dollar for dollar.
"If businesses want to relocate to the Sixth Ward, those TIF funds can be used to meet their infrastructure needs," she said. "It can help to fill in some of the gaps for financing new projects."
Melissa Hiltunen is one business owner who was drawn to the burgeoning community. Hiltunen relocated her Vanilla Bean Bakery & Cafe from Rodney Street to 1324 Gallatin Ave. in the heart of the Sixth Ward back in January.
The business' new home in a building that once belonged to Helena Industries boasts plenty of square footage, high ceilings, a coffee bar and more seating than was possible in its previous location. The property also benefited from new, TIF-funded sidewalks.
Kuntz also owns the space she is leasing, and she credited the successful relocation to his help and "all-in" mentality.
"I love it here," Hiltunen said. "Having more seating, more capabilities has been a plus. It's also fun to have a couple of parks nearby."
She said she is excited to see the new space's full potential play out during the upcoming warmer months, especially since the relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions in Lewis and Clark County.
Megan Malkin started her vintage market, Mae & June, out of her family's garage in 2016. Malkin moved the operation into a Sixth Ward "shop and barn," as she puts it, three years ago.
She said it did not take long for her and her customers to fall in love with the community.
"It's cool to honor the legacy of the neighborhood, and at the same time make our own history," she said. "This was historically the welcome mat of Helena, and we want to roll that welcome mat out again."
That tightly knit community feel of the Sixth Ward's business sector is something she expects will attract more entrepreneurs and customers.
"I love this collaborative business environment," Malkin said. "We're working on growing the business sector."
That Friday in April, Hiltunen and Malkin kept their businesses open late to welcome the warm weather and warmer customers.
"It's easy to just say 'Hey, we'll be open late,'" Hiltunen said.
Plans are in the works for more community events such as a bicycle parade and festivals, according to Malkin.
A pair of musicians played to the crowd at Vanilla Bean that night. They set up in front of the bakery's fireplace with a half dozen or so toddlers running about and parents chatting over lattes.
Haugen said her department is working on creating new tools to further complement the efforts of the Railroad Urban Renewal District, but continued resurgence will need continued community buy-in.
"When you look at the Sixth Ward, you can't help but see a lot of potential," she said. "We're very fortunate to have local business people who care and are willing to invest in the neighborhood."