Wednesday, February 23, 2011


A while back I was talking to an older businesswoman with many lawyer friends who is pretty hip about Montana.  I was telling her about our gravel dilemma.  Briefly, one of the people on the town council is the local gravel and excavation man.  The town needed gravel for some road work.  Because of a state-level rule, they could not buy it from the man on the council because that would be a conflict of interest.  So the mayor, who is a bureaucrat from Seattle, solicited bids quietly from other gravel companies, chose one and bought on her own initiative.  It was tens of thousands of dollars but under the $50,000 limit on what can be bought that way.  This was fine until the bill came to the council to be approved.  BLAMMO!!
My female friend scoffed,  “What fools!  In a 300 person town like Valier, they should have pressured the council member for a nice discount, quietly bought the gravel from him, and kept everyone happy!”  (Previously, this had been the sort of practice that some called corrupt and others called practical.)  I was a little jolted by her candor, though I’d had the same feeling that there was a troublesome discrepancy between rules made for the larger cities in Montana (none of which are over 100,000) and the reality of what works in a small community where unfair advantages are policed by peer pressure.
So last night I went to a community meeting (cold and snowy here -- maybe half a dozen in attendance) run by a very nice urban-minded lady (her male partner was eliminated by knee surgery) with a lot of big maps, much more sophisticated than the newsprint and fiber tip maps made by our village gadfly but containing roughly the same information.  Her Power Point screen refused to work, so we clustered around her laptop.  The chair of the county commissioners, Sandra J. Broesder,  WAS in attendance which earned her major points in my estimation.  (She’s also a fan of “My Friend Flicka.”  It doesn’t get better.  Or maybe it does.  She grew up in Calgary, the cowboy Paris of the prairie.)  

There are no email addresses for any county offices or individuals.  The county seat is a long-distance phone call, though the reservation is not.  There was no reporter present.  The newspaper is owned by a family thirty miles away and not particularly interested in our town.
We are obliged by the state to create a “growth plan” before we can zone.  There is an appetite for zoning here, mostly based on the need to “look respectable” and easily perverted into spot zoning -- trying to force one’s neighbor to conform to one’s own standards.  (No horses, no chickens.  Anything rural seems downscale.)   Early in the history of the community it was a major business node with multi-story hotels and a military airport and then devolved into a small, quiet town memorialized in Ivan Doig’s memoir, “This House of Sky.”   (Nothing is made of this.) Recent signs of progress have been tearing down old buildings, rather than creating new ones.
Growth seemed to be defined as building new homes, though no one was very clear about where the jobs were to enable people to pay for them.  Two major sources of new people are retirement houses for local ranchers and commuter housing for law enforcement.  Someone asserted that our proportion of officers to population is higher than the US as a whole:  highway patrol, deputy sheriffs (the sheriff lives here), border patrol, homeland security, immigration, prison personnel.  (A major private prison is in Shelby -- few people want to live in Shelby because it has leapt at EVERY opportunity to bring jobs, no matter what impact on the community.)  Both groups like the idea of a quiet place with fishing and hunting nearby.
Weirdly, discussion revolved around getting rid of our railroad spur (it serves the grain elevator) and the airport (someone wants to develop it for “luxury view houses” overlooking -- pun intended -- the idea that high-income people might want to fly in and that the foreground of their view would be the trailer camp that serves the fishermen on the lake, which is really an impoundment reservoir.)  Several things were entirely ignored:  businesses that could operate via the Internet, like perhaps an ePublisher; and the awkward fact that our infrastructure is overwhelmed.  The sewage lagoon (new ten years ago) earns us nasty letters, the water system constantly breaks (a major pond at our single traffic signal was just fixed), the electricity can be off for hours at a time.  (It’s worse when it’s only a “brown-out” which destroys motors.)  No one mentioned the number of houses for sale.  Talk about new “developments” ignored the fact that previous attempts at developments left the status of the property involved in a costly legal and surveying mess, sort of semi-dormant.  The vicissitudes of inheritance have left other properties locked up.
Many of the things that affect growth in this town are simply way beyond our control.  Imagine a winter worse than this one -- colder temps, less snow -- that kills seeds in the ground, imagine something going wrong with the “Roundup Ready” GMO seeds so one year they fail to germinate, imagine oil so high-priced that ag chemicals and gas for the massive tractors were impossible to get.   It was CRP that devastated business in Valier -- land not being actively farmed meant the farmers could move to Florida.  We are global now:  weather and politics everywhere on the planet affect us, or we wouldn’t have had such great profits this year.  Some are predicting that when the megacities go broke (it’s a real possibility), their people will scatter out to the small towns, full of need and violence.
No one dared say, “Tribal.”  Yet Valier is right on the reservation boundary and more enrolled people move to town all the time.
Moving away from crushing pessimism, I offered this idea: craftsmen/artisans/artists.  This is a quiet shift already happening.  Jack Smith’s Medicine River Gallery is an active seller online, kitty-corner is a custom embroidery shop, down the street is myself pounding the keyboard, at the western edge is a new small foundry capable of casting jewelry and other small items, towards the south is a Blackfeet former schoolteacher who makes traditional bead jewelry and also a woman who paints at the level of juried exhibitions.  I’m told there’s someone in town who proofs textbooks, but I don’t know who that is.   
This is a sort of person who comes quietly with small resources, but often over time is capable of making improvements in property.  What would encourage them?  I’ll think about it for a while before I write something to send this bureaucratic inquiry that overlooks the obvious.   What’s the use of outside consultants if they don’t crack open the dilemmas by introducing new possibilities?  On the other hand, how can they be expected to understand the situation when people refuse to acknowledge the basic facts, evidently out of wanting to look good to the consultant?

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