Great Northern Town Center History

Abandoned and Avoided to Vibrant and Thriving

A once abandoned area near the center of Helena’s downtown had parents of the 1970s and 80s warning their children to “never travel through that weed-filled, transient-attracting rail yard on your way to the swimming pool”. Abandoned areas of cities’ central districts were common across the country, after decades of urban sprawl caused people to abandon historic downtowns. Recent years, however, have seen a revitalization of these areas. In Helena, this once deemed blighted area between residents in the historic mansion district and the city swimming pool, is now known as the Great Northern Town Center. It highlights recent revitalization efforts with careful, mixed-use planning to foster community and a new cosmopolitan feel where one had never before existed.

The land on which the Great Northern Town Center now sits was the former site of the depot for the Great Northern Railroad. Downtown developer, Alan Nicholson, became interested in the land in the 1980s. He had been working as a developer in downtown Helena since the mid-1970s and recognized the land’s potential for restoration. It was a barren place, home to several abandoned buildings and a recycling center. His offers to purchase were ignored by the then owner, Burlington Northern Railroad.

In the mid 1990’s, Kay McKenna, Helena’s mayor, spearheaded an effort, funded by the City of Helena and the Helena Improvement Society, to create a plan for development of the land by the city. But the land appraised for less than the new owner, Montana Rail Link, was willing to sell it for and the city, constrained to maximum appraisal price, could not proceed with the purchase. Nicholson then stepped forward and purchased the property from the famed Montana entrepreneur Dennis Washington, owner of Montana Rail Link.

By 1998, Nicholson presented his plans for development to the city. The first option was to extend a street through it and sell plots to large commercial companies and develop quickly. His preferred option, however, was to do a proper urban development with the city’s help.

Realizing that a plan similar to the one previously drafted by stakeholders was the right course of action, the city agreed to a loan for infrastructure such as roadways and the sewer system from a tax increment fund for about two-thirds of the anticipated cost. The city also agreed to buy back land and build a raised parking lot in order to accommodate the anticipated needs within the development.

The vision of the development was to follow a five-part definition of what makes a great place:

In order to meet these criteria, Nicholson worked with the city to develop new zoning rules to allow the development to offer everything from a movie theater and a bank to a carousel and condominiums. Infrastructure construction began in 1998 and the site’s history soon manifested itself in at least two interesting ways.

The first historical find was several feet of ash beneath the land’s surface. The major commodity the Great Northern Railroad transported was coal. Years of coal cars traveling through the area left the ground covered with ash. The ash had to be removed to steady the ground for development to commence.

Secondly, during construction of the Expedition building, crews digging into the ground for the supports for a hydraulic elevator hit something solid 50 feet below the surface. Looking down they learned it was an old railcar lodged underground. Unable to remove it, they wound up choosing a different kind of elevator.

As the development has proceeded over the last decade, the surrounding area has benefited tremendously. Influenced by the integrity and class of the Great Northern Town Center, new buildings have sprung up, including a new Federal Building and Federal Courthouse. In addition, Carroll College’s new buildings now point towards the development, instead of in the other direction as they did previously in order to avoid the unsightly view of the neglected land. Following that, several more commercial buildings developed, including a large accounting firm, real estate offices, law firms, and a state-of-the-art, Gold LEED certified building for Montana State Fund.

The centerpiece of the Great Northern Town Center is the carousel. Completely hand-built, the carousel is one of the world’s most stunning, with vibrant, hand-carved animals and adornments. Judged by the National Carousel Association as the finest new carousel in the United States, the Great Northern Town Center’s carousel features animals that call Montana home: buffalo, big horn sheep, antelopes, otters, bobcats, a grizzly bears, a cutthroat trout and more. Playing off the rivalry between Montana State University and the University of Montana, the bobcat is chasing the grizzly bear around the carousel.

In addition to the Carousel, today the Town Center houses the most up to date convention center in the city, the nation’s 10th Best Western Premier Hotel, an interactive museum of science and culture (Exploration Works), unique boutiques, restaurants and some of the Northwest’s top accounting, financial planning and engineering firms.

As the Great Northern Town Center continues to grow, it is helping to write the next chapter of the history of Last Chance Gulch while enhancing connections to the past through its outdoor Lewis and Clark Interpretive Trail and building names such as Expedition, Discovery, Compass and Artisan Blocks. The Great Northern stands as a testament to Nicholson’s belief in Helena’s future as a thriving community.