Montana town puts out unwelcome mat

  • A friendly T-shirt sold in Montana stores for tourists

    Cindy Wehling

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.' "

It's a 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 communities.

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 population.

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 western Montana.

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 homes.

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 Bozemanites.

"It's a 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 traffic.

"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 California.

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.

Seavey 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 says.

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 Helena, Montana.

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