Montana town puts out the unwelcome mat
BOZEMAN, Mont. - This
quiet, mountain-ringed college town just north of Yellowstone
National Park has now been discovered by everyone from movie stars
to footloose entrepreneurs and just plain folks.
But to the people who live here the influx is more invasion than
discovery. This is how a local artist feels about newcomers: "If I
find out someone's from somewhere far away I am rude to them," says
H.J. Schmidt, who was born and raised in Bozeman. "I get annoyed
and angry. I feel "you were in your place and it got ruined. Now
you are coming to my place to ruin it." "
problem many Western communities face as people bail out of urban
areas. But the real shocker in Montana was an 11 percent jump this
fall in property taxes. Fueled by skyrocketing property values,
officials pin a big part of the blame on the influx of
out-of-staters to Bozeman and other Montana
Bozeman's growth is among the
fastest in the state. In 1988, the total value of buildings
permitted by the city was $8 million. In 1993 it jumped to $40
million. The boom has many of the earmarks of a gold boom, a
regular phenomenon in this state. But instead of precious metals,
it's a boom in the quality of life, as people scour the Rockies for
a crime-free small or mid-sized town that has what many newcomers
call a "sense of community."
It's not that
Montana is overwhelmed with sheer numbers of people. Ironically,
many people are leaving Montana because work is difficult to find.
But many who are coming are concentrating in the same kinds of
places, while other, less attractive towns lose
Newcomers choose places like
Bozeman, a town of 35,000 with well-kept turn-of-the-century homes.
Timber-draped, snow-capped mountain peaks jutting into a clear sky
are visible from downtown. Trout fishing, mountain biking, hiking
and skiing are minutes away.
That has attracted
a constellation of Hollywood stars who are making their home here.
Actress Glenn Close owns a coffee shop in downtown Bozeman. Jane
Fonda and Ted Turner have a sprawling 120,000-acre ranch outside of
town. Just 20 miles away, in Livingston, Jeff Bridges and his wife
have a home and own a coffee shop and Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid are
neighbors. Near Big Timber, a tiny ranching town 30 miles east of
Livingston, Tom Brokaw, Michael Keaton and Whoopi Goldberg have all
dropped anchor. Mel Gibson has a spread a little farther east, near
Columbus. Kiefer Sutherland, Emilio Estevez, Joe Montana,
Christopher Lloyd, Huey Lewis and Andie McDowall all have homes in
Such high-profile celebrities
draw other people who want to be part of the glittery trend, to the
point where many fear real estate will become so expensive that
working class people will be forced out of their
While the demand on real estate has shot
home prices up, salaries in these small towns stay low. The average
price of a home in Bozeman is $101,000, while four years ago that
same house went for about $65,000. Salaries of many people who work
at Montana State University, for example, are among the lowest in
the nation. Montana's per capita income in 1990 was $11,200. The
result: Buying real estate is no longer an option for many average
nightmare," says Dennis Glick, who shopped for a year here before
he bought a house in Livingston, 20 miles away. He now commutes 40
miles a day in bumper-to-bumper
"I bid on houses
where people offered more than the asking price and offered to pay
in cash. By the time a "for sale" sign appears the place is sold."
Tensions have risen along with price of real
estate. T-shirts have sprouted in Montana and elsewhere with
slogans like "Montana Sucks: Now go home and tell your friends' and
"Beautify Montana: Put a Californian on a bus."
Californians stand out since they make up the majority of Montana
newcomers, according to a state count of new license plate
applications. But all immigrants are likely to stand out since
Montana's population - about 839,000 - is sparse compared to
Bill Seavey, owner of the Greener
Pastures Institute in California, offers counseling and advice to
people seeking a move to Western states for the quality of life.
His phone number is 1-800-OUT OF LA.
cautions departing Californians that they are the Okies of the
1990s and they will probably not be welcome in their Promised Land.
"Maintain a low profile," Seavey advises. "Change your license
plates. Don't buy the biggest house on the block and get involved
in your community."
Not everyone is
anti-Californian. Vicky Popeil owns T. Charbonneau, a Bozeman store
that sells Western collectibles - things like pillows covered with
cowboy boot-print fabric, Western clothing, lamps and sculptures in
the shape of trout. "It's a long winter without the tourists," she
What no one knows is whether the new
Montanans will stick it out. The state's brutally cold winters -
temperatures can drop to 30 or 40 degrees below zero - could send
some immigrants scurrying back home.
The writer works in