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For Miranda Hodge — like many Bozeman immigrants before her — it was love at first sight.

Even before first sight, actually. When she and her husband moved to town from Dallas last fall, she said, they realized they wanted to be in the area long-term about the time they rolled into Livingston.

“It’s just so beautiful,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I felt like it was home.”

Here to pursue graduate studies at the fledgling Yellowstone Theological Institute, she loves Bozeman’s community and its focus on local businesses like coffee shops. She’s made friends — including some as she stood in a Black Friday line at Kohl’s — and has also gotten involved, voting in a local election for the first time last fall and helping plan a latte foam art competition.

“I love Bozeman so much,” she said, “and I want to be a part of making it better.”

Hodge, and the many vibrant young people like her flooding into the area, represent the key to Bozeman’s civic future, its eventual business owners, sports coaches and community leaders — the sort of human capital many Montana towns can only dream of attracting en masse.

But, despite the valley’s world-class quality of life and increasing economic opportunity, sky-high housing costs and subpar wages are pushing at least some residents, especially young families, to chase their American Dream across other horizons.

‘The essential permanence’

The basic question — how many of Bozeman’s new arrivals will end up choosing to build a life here in the long run — isn’t new, it turns out. In fact, it’s been kicking around town longer than most of the city’s current residents.

Studying Bozeman back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then-Montana State sociologist Patrick Jobes concluded that a majority of new residents ended up washing out of the community within a decade of their arrival. It was a dynamic he believed had a major impact on the character of the town.

In one classic study, still quoted occasionally by old-timers despite its somewhat limited methodology, Jobes selected a group of Bozeman residents in 1972, intending to measure how their attitudes toward the community and its quality of life changed over time.

What he found, however, was that most of his initial subjects, four in five, had actually left Bozeman behind by his final round of interviews in 1980 — even though he had specifically selected non-students with avowed intentions of making the town their permanent home.

“Bozeman is not a community in the sense that it is composed of the same persons over an extended time period,” Jobes wrote in a 1988 paper describing his findings. “It is a settlement in which a large number of rapidly in and out migrating persons are superimposed on a stable core of residents.”

He continued: “Although some newcomers may naively hold the notion of Bozeman as a romantic example of a small town, it lacks the essential permanence, familiarity and population stability to be that.”

(It’s worth noting that Ray Rasker, with Headwaters Economics, himself enough of an old-timer to have debated with Jobes in the flesh, said this week he was skeptical about the study’s migration findings. He said the study had a small sample size and wasn’t designed to measure the city’s departure rate. Efforts to contact Jobes, said to have retired to California, were unsuccessful.)

The result, Jobes wrote in his 2000 book, “Moving Nearer to Heaven,” was that Bozeman ended up a community anchored by a minority of long-term residents, surrounded by an ever-shifting crowd of transient newcomers.

“The people who do not move away, particularly those who remain for more than a generation, contribute a deeper structure to the community,” he wrote. “Their stabilizing contributions to neighborhood, friendships and voluntary organizations are the dependable and familiar foundation of life.”

He added: “These are the people who own the businesses and manage the organizations on which residents depend.”

As Jobes saw things, twin forces drove that pattern in Bozeman and other scenic towns in the Northern Rockies: economics and fantasy.

Many of Bozeman’s in-migrants arrived with an idealized conception of small-town life, he argued, describing the expectations widely held by exurban immigrants as a “Montana fantasy.”

“They seem to have a dreamscape geographic image which they think can be objectively played out like chess or Monopoly,” he wrote in 2000. “They only want a few affordable acres, which they intend to develop only a little bit. They want urban amenities and a flexible, mobile lifestyle. They want community to almost magically, though sensibly in their minds, to converge around them.”

But when that fantasy wore thin, he wrote — running into the harsh economics of towns where the number of dream-chasing arrivals inevitably outstripped the supply of jobs — the initial idealism had a tendency to sour.

The pattern, Jobes argued, was for the recently arrived to spend down their savings, with tradesmen, for example, taking on work at low wages in an attempt to establish their reputation — thereby undercutting more established businesses.

“(S)ince there is an endless steam of newcomers entering and competing in the local labor market, it creates eternally depressed incomes and tenuous job security for wage earners throughout the spectrum of occupations,” he wrote.

The young stream in

Decades after Jobes’ studies, with Bozeman double its 1988 size, it isn’t entirely clear whether growth has changed the dynamics he documented. While the rise of the local technology sector has boosted job opportunity, at least for those with the appropriate skill set, ever-climbing housing prices have created an economic crunch of their own.

It is reasonably certain, however, that relatively few current residents are old-timers. A study commissioned by the city this winter saw only 24 percent of respondents report living in Bozeman for more than two decades, compared to 41 percent who said they had lived in the city for five years or less.

Furthermore, migration estimates compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau at a county level, derived from survey data collected between 2010 and 2014, indicate that a tremendous number of people in Gallatin County — nearly 10,000 — are new faces in any given year.

Something like 6,000 Bozeman-area residents are also moving out of the county on an annual basis, the bureau estimates, for a net increase of 4,000 people a year from migration. Those figures, which the bureau says include university students, put arrivals each year at about 11 percent of the county population and departures at 7 percent.

Missoula County, spanning Montana’s other college town, has comparable rates of migration relative to population, though a much smaller differential between the number of people moving in and out. The Helena region has a rate of out-migration that’s comparable to Bozeman, but a roughly equivalent inflow.

Now, those numbers may overstate movement rates, and also have fairly large margins of error. Another set of figures compiled by the Census Bureau estimate that Gallatin County’s net population gain from migration between 2013 and 2014 was 1,900 people, on top of 1,150 births and 540 deaths. They also put the county’s 2014 population at 97,300 and its annual growth rate at 2.7 percent, compared to the 4 percent growth implied by the migration data cited above.

Migration data broken down by age, also published by the Census Bureau, indicates that much of the inflow, and by extension much of Bozeman’s population growth, is attributable to young arrivals, many attending MSU. Residents in older age brackets, in contrast, seem to be moving away nearly as fast as they arrive.

Approximately 2,600 18- and 19-year-olds arrive in Gallatin County annually, according to census data, about half of them from out-of-state. MSU’s Fall 2015 freshman class, in comparison, totaled 3,024 enrollees including local high school grads and older, nontraditional students.

On top of in-migration from college-bound teenagers, the county is also seeing an additional 3,300 20-something young adults move in a year. While a substantial number of people in the college-grad age bracket of 20-24 are leaving the Bozeman area, 1,800 annually, the county does appear to be collecting a few hundred extra young adults in their early 20s per year.

Moving into full-fledged adulthood, though, arrival and departure numbers seem to fall into rough equilibrium for people in their late 20s and 30s. While the Census Bureau does report small increases to the number of county residents in those age brackets, they’re within the data’s margin of error.

The Bozeman crunch

Anecdotally, many Bozemanites with young families say the city’s high housing costs and comparatively low wages — 73 percent of the national average — make it difficult to settle down.

Courtney Kramer, formerly Bozeman’s historic preservation officer, said she and her husband, Dustin Johnson, relocated with their young daughter to Clarkston, Washington, last fall in large part because of Bozeman’s cost of living.

Both MSU grads in their 30s, they had minimal student loan payments and were established in professional careers — him as a civil engineer. They had also been able to buy a house in 2009, during the recession, she said.

But even so, between the cost of childcare, their mortgage and rising property taxes, they found they were struggling to get ahead, hardly able to save money for things like retirement, a new car or a house with a guest bedroom.

“For us to make that long-term leap into financial stability, we couldn’t stay at this point in our lives,” she said.

She added, “It’s not like we’re blue-collar.”

Robyn Erlenbush, a longtime Bozeman real estate agent with ERA Landmark, said her sense is that first-time homebuyers are increasingly competing with investors and retirees as the market recovers from the recession.

She’s also seeing more out-of-state and out-of-town parents buy properties for their kids to live in while attending school at MSU, she said, pushing up competition for lower-end condos and townhomes.

About two-thirds of the homes sold by her office in 2015 were for use as a primary residence, she said, with 28 percent investment properties and 5 percent second homes.

At the same time, Bozeman does seem to be seeing more high-paying jobs in the tech and medical fields, she said, noting that the number of homes sold in the $500,000 to $1 million range in areas surrounding Bozeman increased by 75 percent between 2014 and 2015, from 77 to 135.

The median Bozeman-area detached home price, according to the Gallatin Association of Realtors, reached $362,000 last year, up $37,000 from 2014. The median price for condos and townhomes was $205,000, up $6,000.

Hodge, who notes that she’s paying more for an apartment in Bozeman than she did in Dallas, said she’s starting to feel some of that pain — in part because she and her husband own dogs, limiting their rental options.

As the couple look at buying a home, they’re feeling the tug of comparatively affordable housing in outlying communities, despite worries about the commute. There are single-family homes with yards on the market in Belgrade for $200,000, she said — less than the cheapest condo she’s seen available in Bozeman.

“We want to be close,” she said, “but we also want to be able to afford our mortgage.”

In the meantime, she said, her family is doing OK financially, but only because she’s still making her “Dallas salary” by working remotely for her old firm back in Texas. With wages more typical for Bozeman, she thinks things would be tough.

“Unless you were here before everything skyrocketed,” she said, “I just don’t see how you can make it on the average income.”

This story was originally published in the March 27, 2016 edition of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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Eric Dietrich covers city government and health for the Chronicle.

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