I didn’t move here 20 years ago to live in a big city

Seth Ward

We’re sitting on plastic stacking chairs in that little meeting room at the library when someone says it. A familiar refrain in these neighborhood meetings and public comment sessions where we occasionally cross paths. Not enough where I actually know your name but we’re solidly into downtown-coffee-shop-head-nod-greeting territory. Another one of our neighbors, software-startup-guy, whose name I do know from the paper, is listening and jotting notes.

It might have been you that said it, but my attention had been drifting. Now that the big city comment is out there, we can’t be more than one or two from someone throwing shade at Boulder. I’m tuned in now, mostly because it sounds like we got to Bozeman at the same time. You might have passed me along I-90 on the way in; that loaded-down Legacy wagon doing just a little better up the pass than my pickup towing a U-Haul.

Which gets me thinking. Up to that exact moment in time, we were both perfectly comfortable with, or indifferent to population growth in Bozeman. At some point our different experiences led you to decide enough is enough, and me to sit here in this uncomfortable chair drinking cold coffee, picking apart that comment.

I mean, we did both move here 20 years ago. That much we’ve established. Both of us with the same potential to take up space and spark all kinds of change for our new neighbors. We’ve watched the same changes, reported the same way, and come to different conclusions. From just our comments, each of us can only guess why the other did in fact move here 20 years ago. But up to that point, it’s fair to say growth wasn’t our first concern.

My mind wanders while the not-the-next-Boulder commenter gets their turn. What if, as we seem to wish, the door to Bozeman really did close behind us? What if, right after you and I moved here, that Brad Pitt fishing movie had flopped? If Montana fell out of favor with lifestyle magazine writers? What if the growth stopped?

Even without the population change of the past 20 years, outside pressures are there. The forces that took away railroad jobs, that moved the livestock auction, closed the theaters, and reduced the summer snowpack were all still in play during our time here. But in this Bozeman, there are fewer options to fall back on. With no growth there are fewer construction jobs for our neighbor to work while he gets his business off the ground.

With a few storefronts already empty when we moved here, downtown anchors like the Rialto, Imperial, and now the Willson School are still vacant. There’s still nowhere to park, though, and the stoplights never got synced up to improve the flow of traffic. Not only is the old Pizza Hut still sitting there, but the old Hardee’s too. Bridger is less packed, but that sweet expansion never happened either. This nice library where we are meeting to ponder the next 20 years? It’s just a fenced lot with elevated levels of asbestos in the soil.

All of this absence makes it hard for our neighbor’s start-up to recruit the talent it needs to really become an engine for the local economy. No one moves to this Bozeman after all, and MSU’s best and brightest know that the smart money, and good sushi, can be found in actual big cities. The kind they can’t even book a direct flight from here. None of this helps my family’s local food service business that tried hard, but couldn’t hang on through that recession.

But I’m getting off topic, and we should probably be listening to the presenter. Our real life town is really growing, and it affects both of us. Everyone in these chairs is determined to live in a healthy community. And we continue to choose Bozeman as that place despite all the changes. Also, this cold coffee unites us.

We’re here, and not any of a dozen nearby towns where the real-deal, three bars and two churches Montana experience is available immediately, and at a significant discount. Our license plate choices and “Save Our Smith” bumper stickers might give up our big city roots, but we could learn to blend in again. Still, here we are, rallying for Bozeman as the best place to live. Even where we disagree about the next 20 years, we have that common ground. Even when we fritter away these meetings daydreaming and treading water with the same old comments, we’re here and we mostly want the same things for our community.

We’ve got a way to go before our growing town is anything like a big city. I believe it’s going to happen eventually no matter how we wish it away, and maybe this is where you and I disagree. We have real opportunities to make it our big city, something unique to this part of the world.  And here we are, doing just that. I’m as excited about that as anything I imagined about Bozeman when I signaled for exit 309 that day 20 years ago.  

This was made by

Seth Ward

Seth is a first-generation Montanan, navigating fatherhood, marriage, business and downtown life (on a budget) in the New West. He is a freelance photographer, web designer, and aspiring artist.

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