The scrappy effort to revive a former mining town

In Butte, Montana, optimism is booming.

 

Inside a new microbrewery on a warm autumn evening, a woman in gauzy fairy wings sang indy rock and played the ukulele. People sporting trendy haircuts and man purses swigged locally made IPAs, gin and whiskey. Outside, a movie premiere’s blue strobe light cut through the black sky.

It would have been an unremarkable scene in Portland or Los Angeles, but this was Butte, a southwestern Montana town best known for the Berkeley Pit, a toxic lake in an old copper mine that’s part of the nation’s largest Superfund site. Yet dozens of film industry folks were gathered that night to screen Orphan Girl, a historical drama following a day in the life of an underground miner, showing the dangers, hardship and innovation that went into unearthing the copper that electrified the modern era. Butte power-couple Courtney and John McKee of Headframe Spirits wanted to use the story of the Orphan Girl mine, the namesake of their bourbon cream liqueur, to convey the “untold history of Butte.” The film is not only part of a marketing campaign, it’s also a tribute to Butte’s mining history — and a call to arms for its future.

Since copper crashed in the 1980s, Butte has struggled to find an economic footing — and a new identity. In the ’90s, the town promoted mining tourism, opening a roadside gift shop and charging visitors to gaze at the Berkeley Pit’s metal-melting waters. In 2006, The Daily Show visited. “If it’s the Berkeley Pit that draws them here, it’s our job to keep them here … for all of the other things we have to offer,” then-state Rep. Jon Sesso, D, said. The show’s reporter asked for examples; Sesso’s edited reply consisted of 30 painful seconds of “um” and “uh.”

Since then, Butte has become as well known for its summer music festivals as for its once-legendary St. Patrick’s Day bar brawls. A few tech companies have moved in, and developers have breathed life back into historic Uptown. Yet compared to Bozeman and Missoula, the economy still looks anemic: Uptown’s poverty rate is nearly 30 percent. 

The film, which told Butte’s story with the kind of production polish more common at sporty mountain film festivals, was part of a larger effort to reboot the town’s image — as well as its cultural and economic reality. The area’s population peaked at over 90,000 in 1917; the McKees envision rebuilding it to just under 50,000 from its current 35,000 — big enough to bustle, but unlikely to attract big-box stores. The future city, many residents say, should meld the middle-class stability of the past with a diverse economy and amenities like parks, trails and climbing walls. They hope to prove that a post-industrial town without a ski resort or other big tourist draws can still be modern and well connected.

 

Courtney and John McKee, owners of Headframe Spirits in period clothing from the movie Orphan Girl, which was part of a marketing campaign for Butte.
Courtesy Headframe Spirits

Today, optimism is having its own boom. A Superfund cleanup has changed the cityscape: Once-contaminated soil is now home to parks with walking paths; an old rail bed is a bike trail; one former mineyard is a grassy venue for weddings and festivals. The city is pursuing development grants, including one that built Montana’s fastest broadband network. A local nonprofit brought the National Folk Festival to town in 2008, and a few years later, it started the Montana Folk Festival.

Julia Crain, a city planner who grew up during the 1980s mining bust, says the festivals renewed community pride. “After that, sidewalks were improved, facades started to get painted,” she remembers. “You saw people like Courtney and John who were taking risks, and they were deciding to do it here. It was kind of like, there’s a lot of energy here. It was really palpable.”

Headframe Spirits is one of Butte’s most visible economic success stories, and Courtney and John McKee are deeply involved in development efforts. Initially, though, they just wanted to stay in Butte, where they had close friends, two kids, a golden retriever and a historic home with a cheap mortgage. In 2010, John was working for a biodiesel company and Courtney had an IT business. Then the biodiesel company folded, so Courtney challenged John to turn his flair for cocktails and distilling knowledge into a -business plan.

To succeed in a market glutted with artisanal products, they needed to be, in her words, “a marketing company that sells hooch.” So they built their brand around Butte’s gritty history; “Headframe,” for instance, refers to the multi-story hoist towers that once hauled ore from the earth and still pincushion the landscape. They named their gin, bourbon and vodka after evocative-sounding mines — Destroying Angel, Neversweat, Anselmo — and plastered bottles with historic, sepia-toned photos. Their Uptown tasting room boasts a 110-year-old mahogany bar on loan from the World Museum of Mining.-

Though they drained their savings, the sales pitch worked: John McKee now manufactures high-tech stills in Butte, and the company sells booze from California to Chicago. Orphan Girl outsells Baileys Irish Cream in Montana. Their experience showed that there was opportunity in Butte, if only people were inspired to create it. The low cost of living and supportive community, Courtney McKee says, allowed them to build a lot from very little. Their appraiser, for instance, told them that their $165,000 building would have cost $3 million in Bozeman. “You can push yourself in ways you couldn’t in other places,” McKee says.

Bad marketing and lack of vision are holding the city back, she thinks. Last fall, the city hired consultants to assess the local economy. There was a lot to build on, they concluded: Low housing prices, proximity to major interstates and local financing help for businesses. But to draw more residents, the city needed to aggressively sell its assets — like its historic business district. To help, McKee recently started a nonprofit called Butte Innovates, with support from the head of Butte’s combined city-county government, to amplify positive messages about the town.

To that same end, the Orphan Girl film featured a handful of local entrepreneurs as Butte’s “modern mavericks” — people like Anthony Cochenour, the founder of a company that secures computer networks against hackers. Cochenour opened his newest office in Butte last summer instead of expanding in Bozeman. He now works out of the 114-year-old building housing a data center connected to the town’s high-speed Internet, which is critical to helping him beat hackers. Other IT companies share the building, while the National Center for Healthcare Informatics, which trains battlefield medics via computer simulations, is plugged in across town.

Crain points out that Butte doesn’t lack professional jobs. The city’s largest manufacturer makes high-purity silicon used to build solar panels and employs about 300 people. The hospital is always hiring, and the utility Northwestern Energy is expanding in Uptown. And mining isn’t totally dead: Copper maintains a few hundred high-wage jobs. Silver Bow County’s 4.7 percent unemployment rate is higher than that of Missoula or Gallatin County, where Bozeman is, but lower than the national average. Butte’s population is growing again, but just barely. Its growth rate was just over 1 percent between 2010 and 2014, compared to Gallatin County’s 8.6 percent.

Such tenuous gains make Crain and others fear that Butte will backslide unless citizens vigilantly maintain its current momentum. Roughly 30 of Crain’s young friends, many with small children, left for bigger cities in the last year. The school district lost 60 students last year as part of a decade-long trend. Some couples leave because it’s hard to find two good jobs in a small community. But Butte also lacks family-friendly amenities like an outdoor swimming pool. “I have unrivaled professional opportunity here,” Crain says. She has less competition than she would in a bigger city and access to decision makers. “It’s awesome. But I’m still seeing all of these people leave.”

Last spring, determined to halt the exodus, Crain helped start a group called the Butte Idea Exchange to engage more young professionals in community development. At the first meeting, 145 people crowded the ballroom above Headframe Spirits. On a board on the wall, they listed Butte’s assets and asked what people still wanted. The answers: More family activities, and things like community gardens, a livelier nightlife and arts scene, and better recycling programs. Basically, people wanted a New West economy and culture, and didn’t want to have to go to Missoula to get it. The group started encouraging young leaders to participate in the school board, the historic preservation board and in economic development groups like McKee’s, and they’re trying to turn abandoned lots into small parks.

This is what Nick Kujawa, a Butte-raised real estate developer, calls “economic gardening” — small quality-of-life improvements that make people want to stay in a community. Butte’s leaders recently approved a $130,000 project to create bike lanes and make Uptown more pedestrian-friendly, the kind of simple infrastructure that helps attract investors like Kujawa. In 2010, he bought an abandoned early 1900s apartment building and turned it into lofts with a grocery store downstairs, the first in the downtown core in over 30 years. The project helped kick off a small wave of similar redevelopments. Now, Kujawa says, Butte can use these assets “to convince people who grew up and moved away that, ‘Hey, you know this town, there’s opportunity here, and you can make a life here.’ ”

But to really grow, Butte will still have to attract new transplants, and that’s an ongoing challenge. “It has a reputation to overcome,” says Ray Rasker, the executive director of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman. Take the Berkeley Pit. “That’s pollution tourism. You’re telling the world you’re one of the most polluted places in the world.” On the other hand, he says, “People throughout Montana really respect Butte because they have a can-do spirit. That’s worth marketing. They are scrappy people, and they get it done.”

 

People watch stunt riders during a performance of the Wall of Death traveling show at Evel Knievel Days in Butte, Knievel’s hometown. The event brings more than 50,000 visitors each year.
Chris Lombardi

Courtney McKee herself is evidence that opinions can change. When she  first glimpsed Butte from Interstate 90 in 2001 she saw the Berkeley Pit’s ochre walls, and a dismal drag of gas stations and fast food chains in an area called The Flats. What a dump, she thought. And yet weeks later, she moved to town — to be with John, who was raised in Butte.

Now, McKee jokes that she’s doing penance for her bad attitude. On a cloudy November day, she parked her pickup in a weedy old mine yard with rusting steel buildings and piles of pipe. “This whole site looks like (crap),” she griped, as ravens pecked siding off the hoist house. But she and John are negotiating to buy it. They plan to build the largest distillery West of the Mississippi here, complete with conference facilities, a restaurant, lodging in old miners’ bungalows, and a music venue. A lot of cleanup is needed first, but McKee seems undaunted. “I want to create a destination like nothing else that exists here,” she said. “I just want to challenge people’s thinking about what potential looks like