BOZEMAN, Mont. — It's been two years since downtown Bozeman experienced its worst disaster since Main Street was dirt. The natural-gas explosion destroyed half the 200 block East Main Street at 8:12 a.m. on March 5, 2009, and took the life of one young woman.

The destruction of landmark buildings that housed decades-old businesses couldn't have come at a worse time, said Chris Naumann, executive director of the Downtown Business Partnership.

"It happened right as we were spiraling into the depths of the recession," he said.

But despite the hardships of the last couple of years, downtown Bozeman appears to be thriving.

There are fewer empty store fronts than there were just before the explosion, commercial real estate agent Chris Pope said recently.

"There's definitely a lower vacancy rate," he said. In fact, "there's a lot of people wanting to get onto Main Street but there aren't a lot of opportunities" right now.

Strolling down Main and along nearby side streets, one can't help but notice all the new businesses that have taken up residence on and near Bozeman's main strip in the last two years: The Chocolate Moose, Bar Nine, The Horny Moose, CafÉ Francais des Arts, Chickpea CafÉ, Get N' Green and Bozeman Optical, to name just a few.

Adding to the action are established businesses that have moved downtown: The Yarn Shop and Fiber Place, Bangtail Bike and Ski, and the future second location of the Community Food Co-op, for example.

Conversely, the last two years has seen a decline in the corporate big box stores many local business owners feared would steal their customers away. Linens 'n Things, Old Navy and most recently Borders Books have all left their large stores north of downtown empty.

Downtown has survived for a number of reasons, Naumann said.

The growth of the big box stores coincided with Bozeman's population growth, and although those stores may serve a purpose, they can be found anywhere in the United States. When people visit Bozeman, they come downtown for a reason, he said.

"The advantage downtown has and will always have is it represents what is unique about Bozeman," Naumann said. "The people helping you are (often) the people who own the business and remember your name."

Bozeman's economic development coordinator agreed.

"Downtown business owners are invested in the community in a way that the big corporate entities are not," Brit Fontenot said. "I feel like downtown is somewhat immune to the ups and downs of the economy because downtown business owners are invested in that strip of land we call the downtown historic district."

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a three-story building is going up in the hole that used to be Montana Trails Gallery, the Rocking R Bar, Boodles and the Pickle Barrel.

Rocking R co-owner Mike Hope expects the building, which will include the Rocking R, Santa Fe Reds and a burger-deli-type shop to open sometime this summer. He is also optimistic about tenants for second- and third-floor offices.

"It's been a long road but I can see a light at the end of the tunnel," Hope said.

And the American Legion on the other side of the explosion site is already up and serving patrons once again.

Pope, who owns the building on the east side of the explosion site that housed several apartments, The Great Rocky Mountain Toy Company and Starky's Authentic Americana, said he's still deciding whether to rebuild himself or sell to a local developer.

"It's been quiet over the winter," he said. "We've been starting some plans and ideas before going forward. We are within 60 days of knowing if we'll be able to develop the property" or sell to a developer.

"We're not anticipating that yet," Pope said.

He's been working with local architect and "aggressively looking at how to bring the building into a green design, though it will look like a traditional building.

"We think there is this really exciting opportunity to bring the historic part of the building back while boldly introducing more modern systems and design concepts for sustainability and more efficient building use," he said. "But fundamentally it always comes down to money."

It's a multi-million dollar project and he wants to make sure the project is done properly.

"If we are to pursue it ourselves, there's still a lot of work to be done," Pope said. He hopes by this fall he will have a set of designs and will be ready to move ahead.

That's not to say everything is hearts and roses. A sluggish economy is still taking its toll.

"Everybody is still trying to get through the economy," Bangtail Bikes owner Chris Saboda said Friday. "The grass still isn't greener. We don't know if the grass is going to grow."

But many downtown business owners say they plan on riding it out.

Tricia McMenaman opened Bozeman Optical across Main Street from Bangtail last summer.

An optician working for other businesses in Bozeman for 15 years, "it was time for me to open my own store," she said Friday.

Like many businesses in a competitive market, McMenaman recognizes that service is crucial to her business' success, she said.

"Service is key in a down economy," she said.

And her choice of a downtown location was also strategic.

"It's a community downtown," she said. "It's a downtown that thrives on its community."

Gregg McMan, who opened Get N' Green less than a month ago, agreed.

"It's so nice to see downtown Bozeman coming back," he said. "All these pieces are coming together."

McMan said he'd postponed a meeting with Pope to look at retail space the day of the explosion. But he took a snow day and was up at Bridger Bowl when he heard about the disaster, he said.

Saboda, who moved his store from "midtown" West Main Street to the downtown storefront beneath the iconic rotating horse in June 2009 just months after the explosion, is still optimistic.

His new location brings in more casual foot traffic where his old location was more of a destination store, he said.

"That's what we didn't have before," Saboda said. "The walkabouts."

Before he bought the downtown space, Saboda spent several days monitoring the empty storefront at the corner of Bozeman Avenue and Main Street.

In just a couple of hours, he watched 60 people peek in through the windows, he said.

With more space and more visibility, he said the store is holding its own.

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"This downtown is vibrant and exciting," Saboda said. "It's been a good move in that we've been able to weather this economy. People wish their downtown were like this."

Naumann said it's the business owners themselves who make downtown what it is.

"They all have one thing in common," he said. "They are people who believe in downtown and are willing to make an investment in downtown."

Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle, http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com