The 190 miles that stand between Treasure County and Gallatin County don’t even begin to measure the gulf between them. These two of Montana’s 56 counties tell divergent stories about the state.
Treasure County, with only 680 people, is being abandoned. Between 2000 and 2006, its population declined 21 percent, the largest drop in the state. Its most bustling burg, Hysham, is home to 262 people, and that number has dropped by the same percentage in the past six years.
Roughly a four-hour drive to the southwest sits Gallatin County, home of Bozeman, high-priced homes and a playground of celebrities. In six years, the county’s population grew faster than any in the state — 19.3 percent to a 2006 total of 80,921. If the trend continues, the county seat will need bigger britches: By 2025, Gallatin’s population is predicted to double.
In today’s Gazette, reporter Brett French and photographer DAVID GRUBBS examine the two counties and their opposite struggles.
With a cell phone cradled between her shoulder and head, Heidi Graf swung a large, orange mallet to pound her real estate sign into the front yard of a Belgrade home.
As sunshine warmed the blue sky day, the tops of the nearby Bridger Mountains glared with a fresh frosting of white snow. Only a stone’s throw south from where Graf pounded her sign, though, cars whined down Interstate 90.
“The interstate is killing us,” Graf said.
The $255,000 home, built by her brother’s contracting company, has been on the market since September. But other developers don’t seem concerned. All along the Belgrade street fronting the interstate, houses were in different stages of completion, slowly filling in the expanding neighborhood that is also next door to a gravel pit.
Despite the slow turnaround on the home, Graf, 29, remained unshaken. Young, perky and positive, she seems to personify Gallatin County’s booming growth, as well as its more than 750 real estate agents.
“I was born and bred a developer’s daughter,” she said. “It’s our bread and butter.”
Development feeds a lot of people in Gallatin County these days.
Recent census figures show the area growing at the fastest pace in the state – 19.3 percent since 2000 to a population just shy of 81,000.
It’s a trend that has been building. Since 1980, the county’s population has doubled. The Sonoran Institute conservation group estimated that if the trend continues, 100,000 more people will move into the valley by 2036. What’s more, the group said that while the county’s population has grown 139 percent since 1970, the amount of land developed has grown 271 percent.
Construction isn’t the cause of the county’s expansion problems; it’s a reflection of the area’s popularity, said Randy Carpenter, a land-use planner for the Sonoran Institute in Bozeman.
“What’s driving the economy is growth, and construction reflects that growth,” he said.
The reason people are moving to the area is because of the amenities, he said. The beautiful views, access to public lands and the small-town atmosphere are attractions.
Access, too, is a key to Gallatin County’s growth, Carpenter said. People with customers and clients elsewhere have to be able to hop on a plane if necessary.
Carpenter said that thanks to Gallatin County’s convenient airport and interstate access, and the fact that computers, the Internet and wireless communications allow businesses to locate where owners want to live, places in the West such as Gallatin County are more attractive than ever.
The wealthier of the county’s new residents aren’t looking for employment. Instead, they are bringing their money with them, becoming what Carpenter calls equity migrants.
“It’s a mix of early retirees, young trust-funders, older retirees and folks coming to start businesses and employees responding to those job opportunities,” he said.
The result is largely a service economy – service being defined as anything that doesn’t have to do with extractive industries or trades such as construction. It’s a familiar trend across the West, being repeated in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming and Idaho.
But with the growth comes a host of problems, not the least of which is keeping up with all the development. As more residents pour in, county and city governments have to contend with increased demands on roads, schools, water and sewer services.
“It feels like we’re behind trying to mitigate health and safety issues and environmental issues,” said Joe Skinner, the Gallatin County Commission chairman. “Almost everything we do is impacted by growth. People move here and expect services like where they came from. Land use is definitely an issue.”
To help guide its development, the county adopted a growth management plan in 2003. Now the county is trying to implement its own suggestions.
“We’ve proposed a balance between incentive-based ideas with a certain amount of regulation – minimum lot sizes are required in the rural part of the county in an effort to reduce sprawl,” he said.
Greg Sullivan, the county’s newly appointed planner, said officials haven’t done as good a job as they should have in planning subdivisions, but they’re getting better.
“All new growth has to happen in or adjacent to existing communities,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out how to make that happen. One thing we’re looking at is transfer of development rights, cluster development and a maximum density of one unit per 160 acres in the rural parts of the county.”
Moves such as these please ranchers such as Tom Milesnick, who lives north of Belgrade on a ranch that has been in his family since 1936.
“Being in agriculture isn’t a lot of fun in the Gallatin anymore,” he said. “There are more hassles and restrictions. It’s hardest on the cattle producers.”
With desirable land going for as much as $30,000 an acre, many of Milesnick’s neighbors have sold out and packed up.
“I can’t blame farmers for selling,” Skinner said. “We’re trying to pay rural landowners to not sell their lands” using open-space bonds and conservation easements.
Milesnick, 59, has so far fended off offers from buyers with “unlimited incomes” who are interested in his family’s ranch as a recreation property. Two spring creeks filled with trout and the nearby East Gallatin River make the land a mecca for anglers. Whitetail deer are numerous on the ranch, as well.
“We have telephone calls all the time,” he said. “As I get closer to retirement age, it seems more attractive.”
At the prices land fetches now, he said, Gallatin Valley farmers and ranchers can’t afford to buy for agriculture.
“Two thousand an acre is on the high side,” he said. “Fifteen hundred and you might do it.”
The trend of skyrocketing land values angers Cathy Dawe, 54, who lives in the small community of Churchill. She has been fighting a proposed subdivision behind her home where lots are going for $100,000 to $200,000 each.
“Where are people getting the money?” she wondered. “It just blows me away. And where are they making a living? Wages are so low, how are they making mortgage payments?”
Dawe works at the nearby Amsterdam School, which is next door to a proposed subdivision of 410 lots.
“I don’t believe in putting houses on farm grounds,” she said. “A couple of years down the road when we’re buying our beef from China, we’ll be sorry.”
But Dawe said she can’t blame farmers for selling.
“They’re hardly making ends meet,” she said. “That’s a sad comment on America.”
Despite the looming pressures of growth, Dawe said she won’t be moving any time soon.
“I love the mountains,” she said. “But it makes me sick I’m going to be looking at houses.”
The two developments at Churchill and Amsterdam could bring an additional 150 children to the rural school, which has 88 children in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Near Gallatin Gateway, Monforton School will be pressured by three proposed subdivisions totaling 1,069 lots.
“We will no longer be the small, rural town I grew up in,” said Mary Ellen Fitzgerald, county superintendent of schools.
She graduated from Belgrade in 1960 with a class of 33, the largest at that time. Belgrade High School this year has an enrollment of more than 800.
Mike Pierre, 46, a math teacher at Monforton School who grew up in Bozeman, said the growth has changed the once-rural flavor of Gallatin County.
“The bigger it gets, it’s not quite as trusting,” he said. “You never get to know your neighbors because they’re always moving. I do kind of long for the old days.”
Skinner, the county commissioner, was also born and raised in the Gallatin Valley and spent most of his life ranching north of Belgrade.
“I would love to go back to the 1970s,” he said. “But things change and you adapt to them. You have to change or you’ll get bitter.”
Sue Johnson, who has been in the Bozeman real estate business since the late 1970s and grew up in the town, said she has occasionally struggled with the changing nature of the community – and her role in that change.
“I can honestly say, because it affects my hometown, there are things I struggle with from a personal viewpoint,” she said. “But a lot of the people who have fought on both sides – conservationists and developers – tried to do a lot of monitoring and balancing here because people do care about the place.”
The community of Bozeman, the county seat, is no longer the sleepy cow town it once was. Back then, Montana State University was referred to as Moo-U, the udder university. The National Finals Rodeo and the winter fair were big deals.
Now the town exudes affluence – from the large timber frame houses going up to the trendy folks striding down the sidewalk, from the high-end boutiques lining Main Street to the high-priced SUVs jamming the downtown traffic flow.
And now, MSU has a hard time paying professors enough to make their mortgage payments. In 2004, a compensation study showed that Bozeman housing costs were 46 percent higher than the state’s average, while professors’ average pay was $5,000 less than their peers at similar universities.
But the university, and the diversity of people that it attracts, also makes a positive change on the community.
“Bozeman has a lot of energy,” Johnson said. “And because it’s a real melting pot – because people are coming here because they want to be here – people are more involved in the community. They’re more involved in things that make the community good.”
So school bonds pass and a new state-of-the-art library gets built.
Pierre said despite the fact that his commute has turned into the “Daytona 500,” there’s no place he would rather live.
“I just like living here,” he said. “It’s just a great place to be.”
It’s so great that people like Graf, the real estate agent, decided to move back to Gallatin County. She grew up in Belgrade and went to college at Montana State University. After graduating, she took her teaching degree and moved to California’s Napa Valley.
“I loved it. I loved teaching,” she said. “I just missed the Big Sky.”
So three years ago, she moved back, left teaching behind and began selling real estate.
“I love the mountains. I love skiing. I love the outdoors,” she said. “And my family’s here. They’ve been here for four generations, on both sides of the family.”
Contact Brett French at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1387.