Rooftops, Backrooms, and Basement Conversions: Getting Creative in Montana

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Maggie Collister

Rooftops, Backrooms, and Basement Conversions: Getting Creative in Montana

Montana Rooftop Conversions: Maximizing Space without Blowing Your Budget

In some of Montana’s popular markets, retailers can’t always find the real estate necessary to expand. Vacancy is falling year over year and new supply is struggling to keep pace with rising demand. Connor McMahon, a retail specialist, says that instead of stalling an expansion, retailers should consider untapped expansion opportunities in their current space.

“As Montana markets densify, it’s time to get creative about retail sales space,” Connor says. “Rooftops, basements, and even underused entryways or offices are good candidates for a conversion to be a part of the sales floor.” What does it take to convert unused retail space into revenue-generating opportunities?

First, consider which unused spaces to convert.

Is a flat roof accessible via a staircase or elevator? How much additional floor space could be gained from flipping a storage basement into more showroom or display space? And will the space match the current ambiance of the establishment?

“The Catalyst basement in Missoula and the Crystal Bar patio in Bozeman have done a great job maintaining their unique vibe in their expanded spaces,” says Connor. “Not every closet and nook will be able to be seamlessly incorporated into an existing business.”

Once a space has been identified, McMahon strongly recommends consulting an architectural expert for rooftop or basement conversions that require demolition or will add weight to the roof. “Proactively engaging with an engineer can save you a lot of headaches down the road,” Connor says. “You’ll also want to consider if you need fencing or other barriers to demarcate which spaces are available for customers.”

That Seems Like A Lot…

Looking for something with a little more instant gratification? McMahon has recommended conversions for small offices or back rooms as an alternative to the more labor and capital-intensive conversion of a rooftop or basement space. “Betty’s Divine on Missoula’s Hip Strip did this perfectly with their Divine Trash concept in the rear of their retail space: it’s additional retail square footage and is an experience you can opt into once in the store,” he says.

But, some spaces just aren’t fit for an expansion indoors – and Connor looks to streeteateries or outdoor pop-ups to maximize space in busy summer months. He suggests carefully reviewing local ordinances to understand how to place tables, displays, or clothing racks when using sidewalk space.

Working With the Seasons 

Connor says that now might be the best time to consider outdoor retail, as the pandemic moved some cities to encourage socially distanced or outdoor activities. He points to Billings, which nixed the $1,300 special review fee for outdoor retailers (though they kept the $60 encroachment fee for tables and chairs in the public right of way). “Cities saw outdoor retail as a way to encourage commerce without packing people into tight quarters,” he says.

In Great Falls, pedlets have taken off as a way to expand restaurant space in the summer months. A pedlet is an outdoor structure installed by the business to extend its footprint to the sidewalk and street beyond the sidewalk. Most often, a pedlet is a basic fence made of wood, plastic, or iron and is used in the spring and summer months.

Great Fall’s pedlet program was piloted by the Business Improvement District. Now, Great Falls BID staff are presenting at national conferences on the success of pedlets in the city – even extending to a suspendlet (a small deck suspended above the sidewalk) was installed at Elevation 3330 to add outdoor seating. Billings also caught the pedlet vibe and incorporated it into their downtown retailer options.


Retail space is tough to find – especially in covetable downtown corridors. Maximizing your space can take some creativity, but it’s well worth the consideration. Contact Connor McMahon if you need some inspiration on where to start expanding retail spaces onto the sidewalk, into a back room, or even up on the rooftop.

Matt Mellott
Matt Mellott, CCIM/SIOR

Rooftops, Backrooms, and Basement Conversions: Getting Creative in Montana