Downtown Belgrade

In this file photo, vehicles accumulate at the intersection of North Broadway and West Main Street as drivers wait for the train to pass through Belgrade in September 2017.

BELGRADE — Residents here who want responsible growth like to refer to themselves as “refugees of Bozeman” because most of them, like Blake Christiansen, were priced out of the market when looking to buy a home in the city.

Christiansen is one of the organizers of Belgrade Citizens for Responsible Growth, with members primarily located in the Ryan Glenn subdivision. The group, he said, organized when the developer for the subdivision, located just north of Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, proposed multi-family units within the neighborhood, which residents didn’t like.

Christiansen is the associate director of the Local Government Center at Montana State University and helped the group organize their thoughts on a single sheet of paper. They presented it to the City Council when it considered the denser housing.

Their message was clear: They weren’t ready for multi-family units.

Having lived in both Belgrade and Bozeman, Christiansen said the characters of the two cities are different. He said Bozeman is losing some really good people to Belgrade.

“What is neat, and I hope what Belgrade appreciates, is that we are very interested in investing where we are,” Christiansen said. “And now that we’re out of Bozeman and we’re into Belgrade — you’ve got me, my wife and my two kids — and we are jumping in and we want to jump in and become an asset to the community.”

Christiansen and his family moved to Bozeman in 2014 from Virginia after he and his wife both found jobs. He said he was excited when the family first moved to the city, and he tried getting involved in community activities.

Living with three boys, Christiansen and his wife were looking for a bigger space for the family to live in. The search for a home began within Bozeman’s city limits and grew incrementally further away, he said, eventually landing in Belgrade.

According to a report released by Prospera Business Network, a nonprofit economic research firm, the average price of a new 2,400-square-foot home in Bozeman on an 8,000-square-foot lot is $367,241. The average monthly rent for a 950-square-foot apartment in Bozeman is $1,019.

Eve Parrow, broker associate with Bozeman Broker Group, said the average price for a single-family home in Belgrade is about $291,382. She said three months ago that number was closer to about $260,000.

Ted Barkley, Belgrade city manager, said having a neighboring city like Bozeman is a big reason Belgrade is seeing a spike in growth. According to the most recent census from 2010, Belgrade’s population is 7,389, but Barkley said that number is most likely around 8,500 to 8,800. The previous census performed in 2000 pegged Belgrade at 5,728.

The city has been taking proactive steps to prepare for growth and avoid sprawl.

“We’re trying to shape it so that when it happens — there’s always impacts with growth — we’re trying to position ourselves so that the impacts have more positive attributes than negative attributes,” he said.

The city has created special districts for improvements to the downtown area, updating the city’s transportation plan and seeking more land for the Belgrade School District while it’s cheap and available.

Barkley said when he first started as the city manager about three-and-a-half years ago, he heard a lot of complaints about living in the shadow of Bozeman. His view of Belgrade’s situation is different. Rather than a shadow, he said he sees it as living in the light of Bozeman.

“And that light is that economic energy that Bozeman and its growth brings to the Gallatin Valley,” he said. “We need to be in a position to take advantage of that light and energy.”

Improvements

The Belgrade City Council at its last meeting decided there were five conditions of blight, or deterioration, in the city’s downtown area.

A report submitted by Janet Cornish, principal for Community Development, and Lanette Windemaker, independent planner, outlined the findings. The five areas needing improvement included deteriorating buildings, defective or inadequate street layouts, unsafe conditions, poorly designed parking lots and deteriorating infrastructure.

The council is now taking the first step toward creating a special tax district within the downtown area. This would allow the collection of taxes for improvement projects. Rather than asking residents to borrow the money, or bond, the district creates a new revenue stream to finance projects like infrastructure upgrades. The hope is improvements would attract new businesses to the area.

“It’s not going to be particularly visible in the short run,” he said. “But in the long run, creating that sense of place in our business core is really, really important.”

In Windemaker and Cornish’s report, they said the city is embarking on a program to improve the overall economic health of the community through the redevelopment and rehabilitation of downtown.

“Efforts to revitalize the area will rely on both public and private participation, thoughtful planning and the efficient use of resources,” the report said.

Staying ahead of the curve

The Belgrade School District for about the past year-and-a-half has been in the process of looking to buy land for a possible elementary, junior high and high school — or a combination of all three — to keep up with the growth of the small city.

Each school in the district is designed to accommodate about 500 students, said Leland Stocker, superintendent of public schools in Belgrade. That’s why they are looking into constructing two new facilities.

Stocker said the district has 185 more students now than last year, putting the growth of the city and the schools into context.

“We’re hoping to develop into the proper size that we are,” he said. “You know, when you have 3,400 students (in the district), you’re large.”

The school district is looking for anything from 12 to 200 acres for two possible new schools. The reason for such a big chunk of land, he said, was to keep the area open for sports activities and hold practices and games on the high school’s campus.

Paul Lamb, principal for Belgrade High School, agreed that looking for space was a proactive measure for any future growth. The high school set an enrollment record this year with 917 students. The previous record was set during the 2009-2010 school year at 908.

“We’re looking at the whole gambit to try and set ourselves up for the future,” Lamb said.

The commute

The city is updating its transportation plan to alleviate traffic problems.

Belgrade is working with the Montana Department of Transportation and Scott Randall, a city consultant, on the plan. A website, aimed to capture comments on road conditions, received nearly 80 comments from commuters.

The city is receiving $100,210 from the state for the project. The city would be matching that amount to provide $200,420 for the completion of the plan.

Karp said the city hopes to develop the best and most cost-effective solutions for the city’s traffic problems.

At the most recent Belgrade City Council meeting, Randall said he is hosting a Sept. 19 open house at the Central Valley Fire Training Center.

Randall said he would bring maps and computers to help log comments from residents. He said the input would be welcomed from cyclists and pedestrians.

“We’re making sure we’re moving people, not just vehicles,” Randall said.

City Manager Barkley said the vision of Belgrade is different from Bozeman. Most people choosing to live in Belgrade are moving there because it’s more affordable than Bozeman.

If Belgrade were located almost anywhere else in the state, Barkley said the city wouldn’t be seeing the opportunities from growth it is experiencing now. He said there is no doubt the city is linked to Bozeman and the larger Gallatin Valley in everything it does.

“We need to take advantage of that and see the positive things, and capitalize on the opportunities that are created,” Barkley said.

Freddy Monares can be reached at 406-582-2630, or by email at fmonares@dailychronicle.com.

Reporter

Freddy Monares covers politics and county government for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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