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Bozeman, Montana Economy Is Bolstered By Airport And Room To Grow

The city of Bozeman, Montana, which was visited last week by Park City’s Tour group, has its issues. But they’re the kind of “good” problems that come with steady growth in a city.

We talked to Chris Mehl who currently sits on the City Commission in the position of Deputy Mayor.

He talked to us about the three levels of Western cities, and where a steadily-growing city of Bozeman fits in that scale.

“There are metro areas like Salt Lake City or Denver. There are connected areas which Park City would be part of they’re so close people can commute to work there, or like Bozeman they can fly there so they’re connected. Then there are rural and remote counties.” Mehl continued, “More and more, the middle, the connected counties are behaving like metro counties. They’re seeing more high-end service jobs, lawyers, accountants, engineers. They’re behaving much more, in terms of income and education attainment, like the cities are. The rural and isolated places are the ones that are often struggling, they’re on a commodity cycle or a boom or bust. That’s a change that’s happened over the last 30 years. Park City is an amenity driven place but also a place where a lot of wealthy retirees or professionals would like to grow. It’s probably going to grow, just like Bozeman is growing for at least the next 10 to 15 years.”

Bozeman is the northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Mehl said that Jackson Hole, at the southern gateway, is quite different.

“The biggest difference is that Jackson Hole is land-locked because of all the federal land. They’re seeing their housing prices go up dramatically and within Jackson itself housing is beyond a premium.” Mehl explained, “It’s almost unaffordable completely for somebody who works in retail or at a restaurant or somewhere to live in Jackson proper, so they have longer commutes. We have nearby federal land but its often hours away or at least 20 or 30 minutes away as opposed to 10 feet away. So, we can build in a way that they cannot. Our community is much larger than theirs.”

A big part of Bozeman’s economy is a thriving airport.

“Because of a combination of Yellowstone and Big Sky ski areas our airport is as busy as theirs. 20 years ago, that was not the case, Jackson’s airport was much busier. When I moved here in 2001 we had four direct flights a day and one of them was to Butte, Montana which is 90 miles away. Now we have 16 flights direct to cities across the country.” Mehl said, “For a town of 45,000 to have 16 flights, I think there are four or five a day to Salt Lake City for example, is just phenomenal. It allows businesses to be here and to get to their clients. It allows people to visit, we’re seeing families move here because one set of grandkids are here, but another set might be in San Diego, but they can get to both fairly easily. That airport is a huge economic driver for us.”

This November, Bozeman has a controversial bond on the ballot—a proposal to construct a facility for police, firefighters and the courts.

This will be their third attempt, Mehl said. Four years ago, a proposal for a police facility was turned down. Then a joint plan with Gallatin County also was spurned. Mehl said both times, the proposal failed narrowly.

Mehl explained why the facility is needed—and, maybe why it’s been a tough sell to voters.

“Because we’ve been growing at three to four percent a year. We’ve just run out of space for the numbers of police officers, fireman, and others that we need for public safety. While on one hand we’re the largest safe city in Montana, which is something to be very happy about, given the size constraints that our police force is growing just because we have so many more thousands of people and they’re in buildings that are two generations old.” Mehl continued, “They’ve just reached the end of their useful life. It a discussion with the public who feel safe now about planning ahead. You don’t want to build a building after you’ve lost that ability to be the safest community in Montana. You want to build now so that we continue to be the safest (community) in Montana. Without a clear threat or something that’s bothering them you’re asking them to spend money for long range planning which is always more difficult than solving something that’s an immediate problem and issue.”

The city’s growth, he said, could mean change in use, and density, around their down-town.

“With time the downtown will become more dense under good planning structure. Meaning the area that was just residential may become mixed-use.” Mehl explained, “Downtown is mixed use, meaning there are often apartments or condos on the third or fourth floor but only several blocks away is entirely residential and over-time that may change to be either more dense residential or a combination of residential and commercial as our downtown grows.

Finally, the town is hoping that by the 2020 census, Bozeman will have a population of 50,000. Mehl said that will allow greater access to funding.

“We’ll qualify for a number of grants that we don’t qualify for now.” Mehl said, “Right now, as a technically rural city, even though we don’t feel like a rural city, we often don’t qualify for USDA rural grants because we’re too wealthy or have the population mass for it. It may open some doors for us in terms of assistance from the federal government and the state government that aren’t there now. It certainly comes with a lot of additional paperwork and reporting requirements. It’s not all good, like anything there are pro’s and con’s and tradeoffs to it.”

Known for getting all the facts right, as well as his distinctive sign-off, Rick covered Summit County meetings and issues for 35 years on KPCW. He now heads the Friday Film Review team.
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