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Making sense of modern Bozeman – Montana's 'fancy place'

An essay

Welcome To Bozeman

RACHEL LEATHE/CHRONICLE

A personal anecdote, if you’ll indulge me for a moment —

A couple years back, in October 2014, I was living up north in Great Falls. I was working as a crime reporter at that city’s newspaper, the Tribune, part of newsroom that once won a Pulitzer Prize. I’d just quit.

I’d come to the city, Montana’s third-largest, as a fresh-faced Montana State graduate looking for a start in the journalism business. Chasing ambulances and felony cases across much of central Montana, I’d found it.

I hadn’t quite made it a year in the job when the Chronicle came knocking, looking for a city hall reporter down here in Bozeman. I told my editor I was jumping ship.

As word of my impending departure filtered its way around the office one afternoon, I found myself chatting with one of the Tribune's veterans, one of those dying-breed types who’ve spent decades in newsrooms, in his case nearly all of it in Great Falls.

“Bozeman,” he said. “That’s a fancy place.”

It echoed, a little too true.

"A fancy place” — pretty mild among the full range of epithets thrown Bozeman's way over the past quarter-century, as a nearly continuous boom has propelled us from a cow town with a state college to a recreational mecca, destination college town and regional economic driver.

Anyone who’s been around town for more than a ski season has heard plenty in a similar spirit. Jokes about how driving a vehicle with Gallatin County plates is akin to having a target painted on your back in certain corners of the state. The line that the best thing about Bozeman is that it’s only a 10-minute drive in any direction from Montana — the real Montana, that is.

Or “BozAngeles,” the perennial favorite, especially when we're complaining to ourselves that our town just ain’t what it used to be, what with having to wait a few minutes to get through certain traffic signals during rush hour.

But of all the sharp-edged nicknames I’ve heard for Bozeman in the near-decade I’ve called Montana home, it’s “fancy place” that cuts the deepest.

Brave new Montana

Bozeman is, geographically at least, part of Montana, a red state where rural culture runs deep. The Big Sky Country has a hardscrabble heritage, one of blood, sweat and tears of hard labor. Montanans have been, by and large, blue collar for generations: ranchers, farmers, loggers, miners and railroad linemen.

But 21st century Bozeman is a different beast. As many of the state's old-time industries limp along, we’re a city — and a booming one — built on very different sorts of work: higher education, technology and tourism.

We’ve become a gateway, not just for out-of-staters drawn here by Yellowstone, Big Sky or Montana State University, but also for a new sort of economy, one driven less by sweat than by knowledge, creativity and customer service.

You can see that trend not just at downtown Bozeman coffee shops but also in federal wage data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, tracking the dollars paid to workers by industry sector on a county-by-county basis.

In Gallatin County, Bozeman and its surroundings, professional services represented 19.4 percent of the $1.7 billion in wages paid to private workers in 2015. That’s 5.7 points higher than the 13.7 percent figure for the state as a whole.

Natural resource extraction, in contrast, is a minor contributor to local payrolls — providing just 2 percent of Gallatin County wages. The statewide figure, 6.1 percent these days, is three times that.

Our New West economy and its lifestyles tend to drive a new culture, too. Subarus instead of Ford pickups, lattes instead of Folgers, a craft-brewed IPA after work instead of Budweiser. We’re inclined these days to see things like national forests as resources to be conserved for recreation rather than resources for lumber production.

Depending on your perspective, it's either the arrival of progress or the loss of our Old West birthright.

Love it or loathe it, Bozeman's the vanguard of a brave new Montana.

The magic kingdom

Not long after I moved back here from Great Falls, at one of the first Bozeman commission meetings I covered for the Chronicle, I heard something else that’s stuck with me.

The specifics of the conversation escape me now — worries over traffic from a new apartment complex perhaps, or a discussion over the city’s handling of homelessness. Routine business at city hall either way.

At some point in the proceedings, a motherly looking woman stood up in front of the room to speak. I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember the phrase she used to describe Bozeman: “magic kingdom.”

I can’t say it feels far off the mark. We're named to so many top-10 lists that I've given up on writing stories about every one. (Our online editor keeps track of them in a dark corner of our website instead.)

Lake Wobegon-style, all our kids seem above average. Bozeman High’s ACT scores are the best in the state for big high schools. As Montana’s largest high school, it’s been a dominant force in prep athletics, with recent state championships in football, volleyball, cross-country and debate.

Gallatin County’s unemployment rate, 2.5 percent, isn’t quite the lowest in the state, but our largest employer, Montana State University, has set enrollment records every year for a decade.

My freshman year at MSU, 2008, the campus had 12,400 students. By the time I graduated, in 2013, attendance was up by almost 3,000. These days — as the University of Montana in Missoula weathers a full-blown enrollment crisis — the Bozeman campus has revved up even further, its student body clocking in at 16,400 people attending classes at least part-time.

On top of all that, our young, outdoorsy population is remarkably healthy, consistently at or near the top of the Montana heap when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation compiles its annual county health rankings. On the whole, statisticians tell us we lose fewer years of life to premature death than anywhere else in the state. Our adult obesity rate, 16 percent, is 9 points lower than the statewide figure.

Plus — compared to Cascade County, which includes Great Falls — Gallatin County has a quarter less violent crime, half the child poverty and a third the teenage birth rate.

A magic kingdom, indeed.

Paradise cost

Being a paradise, though, has consequences. For Bozeman, it’s meant growth — 1,850 new residents a year at the current rate, enough to add 7,900 people to the city since 2000.

While talk of building a physical wall around Bozeman to keep out new arrivals has remained idle speculation, the city's housing market has played that role — rents and home prices are soaring as landlords and real estate agents discover they’re in a sellers’ market. There's not enough Bozeman to go around.

Last year, the median price for single family homes sold inside the city was more than $359,000, according to local Realtors. That's up 6.8 percent from 2015, and more than $150,000 above what was typical in the early 2000s.

Real estate website Zillow, in contrast, estimates the median price of homes currently listed in statewide at $285,000.

At least as the local building industry tells it, the city’s rather stringent development regulations play a big part in those figures — making it harder and more expensive to build things like housing for new arrivals. But, for preservation-minded Bozemanites, those codes are vital tools for clinging to the city’s magic, a price worth paying to keep us looking better than our peers.

Missoula

Bozeman

Images from Google Street View

Bozeman's aesthetic requirements, for example, probably saved us from a Verizon store that looks like Missoula’s neon-lit, black-and-red monstrosity. But they’ve also been blamed for scuttling WinCo Foods’ interest in building a new grocery store on North 19th last year — a project that would have probably created 100-plus jobs.

Of course, letting WinCo slip away was a mere blip against Bozeman's boom, a disappointment for the business community perhaps, but something the city as a whole can shrug off. Something else, surely, will come along to fill the gap.

Bozeman envy

Beyond idle grumbling, Bozeman’s reputation has real impact in a political sense, which is perhaps most apparent when the Legislature meets in Helena to update Montana's laws and divvy up our state budget.

Bozeman’s city commission, for example, went into this year’s legislative session hoping for bills that would give them authority to ask city voters for a resort-style sales tax or a local option gas tax — tools they argued would help the growing city pay for new streets and other infrastructure without leaning ever-harder on local property owners.

MSU, for its part, went to Helena looking for money to renovate its Romney Hall into additional classrooms, a project that’s been high on the university system’s to-do list for years.

Both asks ended up stymied by resistance from fiscal conservatives, many from rural parts of the state. Lawmakers did bump up the statewide gas tax, passing some of the proceeds to local governments, but they killed measures to expand local option authority. The Romney project, included in a statewide infrastructure bonding bill, failed by three votes.

In an op-ed column published by the Chronicle last month, Bozeman Rep. Jim Hamilton blamed Romney’s defeat on, among other things, envy of Bozeman’s success.

“A Missoula legislator and I would often joke that perhaps if we moved Romney to that other campus it might get funded,” Hamilton wrote. “Not funny.”

“I had been sort of forewarned that Bozeman is looked at a little unfavorably in the Legislature,” he said in a recent interview. “Not that we’ve done anything wrong.”

Bozeman, Hamilton said, seems to have a number of built-in advantages that few other Montana towns can emulate — everything from MSU to its proximity to Yellowstone to the seemingly never-ending stream of young people looking to call it home.

As such, Hamilton said, the city’s struggles don't tend to get it much sympathy in Helena.

The sentiment instead? “Oh, I wish we had your problems.”

Beyond the bubble

If it’s people that make a community, it’s young adults who represent its future — energetic types in particular, the sorts who might start a business if they settle down, coach a sports team perhaps, or maybe even be talked into running for the local school board. Folks with the heart and soul to help anchor a town.

Barring Bozeman, civic boosters in most of the Montana towns I’ve spent time in emit a barely concealed desperation for that sort of human capital. I can’t say I blame them, being perhaps a bit afraid of what will come for their communities if brain-drain leaves them without a new generation to fill their shoes.

At the Tribune, we ran a weekly young professional profile that had our somewhat beleaguered business editor on a constant hunt for new faces to feature — to the point that new reporters at the paper, myself included, rarely made it more than a month before their turn came up. At one point, I swung by a young professionals group in Great Falls hoping to make friends, only to realize that their cut off for “young” was age 40.

Bozeman, for all our legitimate worries, is swollen with youthful energy. Our biggest challenge in cultivating young talent is giving millennials access to housing and office space they can afford on an entrepreneurial budget.

Nearly half our population is between the ages of 18 and 34, according to census data, compared to just a quarter of Montanans as a whole. Of the 47,000 Montanans in that age range who hold a college degree, Bozeman is home to 12 percent of them — three times our share relative to our portion of the state’s overall population.

While we set records for growth, the demographic reality for many other parts of the state is stagnation or decline.

Population change in incorporated Montana towns and cities

KALISPELL

SIDNEY

GREAT FALLS

MISSOULA

BILLINGS

BOZEMAN

GROWTH RATE, 2014-15

2015 POPULATION

1,000

10,000

50,000

+5.0%

0%

-5.0%

Source: US Census Bureau

White Sulphur Springs, an hour and a half north of Bozeman, has held on with a population just below 1,000 for the last couple decades. It's lost perhaps 30 residents since the 2010 census.

Great Falls, its economy anchored by Malmstrom Air Force Base, is in a similar boat. Hovering around 60,000 for decades, the Census Bureau’s most recent estimate is that its population dropped by 370 people between 2015 and 2016.

Instead of worrying about how long we’ll be able to keep our local high school or hospital open, our municipal headaches here in Bozeman revolve around housing shortages and keeping up with development.

Not bad problems to have, really.

When it comes to the fortunes of Montana’s towns and cities, Bozeman sure looks like a lottery winner. By geographic fortune, we've become the sort of place that snags people, especially those with the skills to stoke the engines of the 21st-century knowledge economy.

I’m not atypical there, myself. I'm a West Coast native, originally from Portland, Oregon, who came out here to chase mountains and an MSU degree. These days, my professional life revolves around a MacBook and an internet connection. I frequent microbreweries and coffee shops, drive a newer-model Subaru and own a well-worn pair of Lycra bike shorts.

If you’re not a fan of what Bozeman’s become, I guess I’m the sort of person who embodies where we’ve gone wrong. If you’re bullish on what we transplants can contribute to Montana though, perhaps folks like me count as an asset.

At the same time, if there was a place for me in Great Falls, I didn’t find it.

I did find plenty of good, kind people there, certainly — among them an older woman I met watching a child abuse trial, who made a valiant if unsuccessful effort to set me up with a young lady I believe was a relative. That city, and the rest of Montana more generally, deserves better than the “Great Funk” dismissal we Bozemanites toss its way in our snobbier moments.

And, of course, my life story certainly doesn’t speak for everyone. My old editor swore to me last month that since I'd left the Tribune they’d managed to find a couple young professionals who genuinely enjoy the Great Falls lifestyle.

But, in the end, when it came time for me to choose between Great Falls and Bozeman — well, the fancy place won out.

Eric Dietrich can be reached at 406-582-2628 or edietrich@dailychronicle.com. He is on Twitter at @eidietrich.

Eric Dietrich covers city government and health for the Chronicle.

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