On July 21 the town of Valier will be having another meeting to discuss growth. But it’s really about other covert agendas. Anyway, the assumption has been that growth will mean the return of prosperity and the expansion of the kind of population that the “nicer” people want. The forces driving growth have been rather different.
First, the Flathead Valley -- which has slightly milder weather because of the lake down the middle of it and because it is sheltered between mountains -- has seen land values increase so much that many of the people who lived in small corners and undeveloped tracts have been able to sell their little old houses (which will be torn down) to people from California and back East for a great deal of money. Then they’ve come to the shrinking ag towns of the east slope to buy little old houses that have stood empty. Enough money has been left over for them to live on for a few years, but those years are running out now. There are no jobs for these folks and some of them tend to have “lifestyles” that keep the sheriff busy, even felony records elsewhere.
Second, some people have found cheap lots when they came looking in the summer and neglected to really investigate some of the issues of infrastructure and cultural life. Only after they’ve built new houses, investing enough money not to be able to walk off, do they discover that the water system will require major upgradings before it meets fire insurance standards, the idyllic-seeming phenomenon of unmetered household water is not going to last much longer, and the septic system -- when the spring run-off dilutes the lagoon -- fails tests. Our wells are aged and there may be an ag chemical and aviation fuel contamination plume reaching for them. So far we can’t afford an investigation. The weather, when it is extreme, can be quite shocking.
Third, the Heart Butte schools are troubling enough that Blackfeet families move to Valier for the sake of the schools here. Though the Valier schools and the Heart Butte schools are both part of the Pondera County school system, the county takes a laissez faire attitude towards Heart Butte as they do towards all county services on the rez. Anyway, the Valier schools need the student numbers and the athletic achievements of the Blackfeet kids. Heart Butte families do not necessarily hold lawns in high regard. Wink,wink. One Blackfeet member has discovered that because of a Dawes Act anomaly some of the town lots are technically part part of the reservation. The implications are unexplored: a gambling casino in town, maybe? Or is it simply trading stock? Is it subject to state taxes and regulations?
Fourth, even with high gas prices we are a reasonable commute for the increased border population: homeland security, immigration, border patrol and so on. Some of these people are family men but others are “special agents” hired on a more temporary basis. The families tend to build houses or move in pre-built houses. The single older men are more inclined to rent.
Fifth, two major electricity projects are being built nearby over the next few years. One is a wind farm, quite large, and the other is a power transmission line between Great Falls and Lethbridge. Labor for these jobs means floaters coming in from parts of the country where jobs are short. Usually younger single men, they enjoy party-hearty weekends and fist-fights at Froggies. We have a shortage of bars in this town so the highway patrol may have more business than usual. The men will be making good money and investing much of it in vehicles. There are certain places where rental turnover is high because roommates don’t get along. At the moment, ten AM on the Saturday after the Fourth of July, around the rental apartment on the corner of this block are more than a half-dozen big pickups, mostly new. If the party continues until Sunday night, that will be a dangerous time because drugs -- including alcohol -- will be wearing off.
Before the housing bubble burst, real estate “flipping” had just reached Valier through the Internet. For instance, Michel -- who is French but had been dealing real estate in Florida and California-- bought two tiny abandoned houses which he improved for resale. One was finished before the bubble burst and is operating as a rental. The other is still empty. Our local real estate business is a sideline operated by a local wealthy rancher who has no concern for town quality.
Some folks are considering selling out. Every year a small but constant number become too aged to maintain here any longer. One person built a rather fancy house and garden combination without considering weather carefully and is surprised that methods and plants appropriate to the Pacific NW simply don’t work here. He’s not the first. One of the few newer businesses in town has gotten an offer of financial help if it will relocate to a bigger town with a broad tourist base. High gas prices have reduced tourist traffic here, even boats. The Panther Cafe has been listed for sale for quite a while. In the meantime, Birch Creek water rights will sharply diminish in a few years, ending some grain operations.
A small speculative development has been proposed on empty lots without water. When approached, the state authority advised that the procedures are so complex that the best thing to do is just to build the first one, pay for the water connection, then extend the other waterlines off that first one -- sort it out later. “Don’t let anyone know you contacted us,” he said. There are already many puzzles of this type complicating our infrastructure: backyard mother-in-law houses and the like. But those who believe that over-regulation by bigger governmental units are stifling our small town are in favor of “just doing it.”
Our town council is conscientious and hard-working, but young. Our mayor is now recovering from congestive heart failure. Our clerk is highly trained, a ranch wife. The two town employees are so harshly criticized that they’re beginning to be resentful. Citizens of the town are reluctant to face what will be emotional problems to work out. This is not a town that likes to quarrel.
Odd that probably the best advice comes from a Bette Davis character: "Buckle your seatbelts-- we're in for a bumpy ride."