I am a native Bozemanian.  

I have deep roots in this fair city.

I graduated from the public school system before once leaving and then returning home.

When my wife (a doctor specializing in family practice medicine) and I came back, we raised our children here.

We hike the trails, explore the mountains, try to exist conscientiously.

And I have tried to be an active citizen.

I ran for and held public elected office for eight years, including two as mayor.

I now teach classes to matriculating students at the state university up the hill.

I love living here.

But as a local who has paid close attention to longer horizon lines, a weekend trip to Missoula prompted dark ruminations on the direction that Bozeman is heading.

 

In Montana, growth policies enshrine the values that communities hold dear, so cities can maintain their character during growth and change.

 

When we left, Bozeman was cloudy, its residents shivering in 48-degree temperature and gusting east winds that chafed the skin and disturbed the mind.  Out across the pastoral Gallatin Valley, parts of the interstate coated with aesthetic blight we went.  When we arrived in Missoula it was 72 and calm. Above the brim-full Clark Fork, the Missoula sun had already bleached the sky to an August whiteness, while the neighborhood streets below were submerged in deep shade from the massy maple trees. In private gardens were colored spikes of lupine and bunches of purple irises already swinging their beards in a reggae-like rhythm.

All weekend long my son, soon to graduate from law school, pointed out Missoula’s superiority to Bozeman: Look, he said, pointing to a middle-aged man sipping a latte at a sidewalk table, eyes obscured by Ray-bans, outfitted in Hawaiian print shorts, a boldly colored button shirt, and flip-flops dangling from gritty feet. I knew he was pointing out the “Missoula man uniform,” so different, he noted, from that of his counterpart in Bozeman, with his tight-fitting cyclist shorts, anklet socks in clip-on shoes, shaved legs, logo-riddled top, and aggressive eyewear.

Look, he said, pointing to the half-dozen thirty-something boogie boarders in wet suits riding Brennan’s Wave, a curl of whitewater on the restored Clark Fork River next to Caras Park in downtown Missoula. It was the middle of a workday. In 2006, Brennan’s Wave was constructed to honor Brennan Guth, a Missoula native and world-class kayaker, and ever since it has brought both revenue and enjoyment to downtown Missoula. He asked me if Bozeman had anything like it and I could only think of the Ten Commandments monument installed in downtown’s Soroptimist Park for the enjoyment of the faithful. (That happened during my own tenure on the city commission).

Missoula’s people are cooler, less uptight, and definitely less materially pretentious than Bozeman’s, he told me. Missoula’s lifestyle is more genuine. Missoula’s economic malaise actually makes the place more livable than frenzied economic expansion does in Bozeman. Finally, he said, the purpose of life in Missoula—enjoyment—is clear; while the purpose of life in Bozeman—economic achievement—causes residents to feel angst about “missing out,” “falling behind,” or “not keeping up” with whatever it is, I do not know. This is not the same Bozeman I remember navigating as a native son.

 

In his piece Mr. Nugent was urging all Missoulians—“of every background, from every sector of the economy, of every age, from every corner of the community”—to make their voices heard as the city of Missoula proceeds to update its growth policy.

 

Usually I dismiss his Missoula boosterism as competitiveness with me rather than genuine fondness for his temporary home. After all, it’s Missoula he’s talking about: Missoula, home of the hated Griz; Missoula, home of feckless burnouts and wandering waifs; Missoula, a wannabe Portland in miniature. Surely he’s just trying to get my goat.

Then I opened the pages of The Missoulian and read something that made it harder to dismiss his observations. It was an op-ed written by Mike Nugent, president of the Missoula Organization of REALTORS. In his piece Mr. Nugent was urging all Missoulians—“of every background, from every sector of the economy, of every age, from every corner of the community”—to make their voices heard as the city of Missoula proceeds to update its growth policy.

In Montana, growth policies enshrine the values that communities hold dear, so cities can maintain their character during growth and change. Together with land use regulations, growth policies determine, among other things, where and how new buildings occupy the landscape (and how tall they should be), the density and type of residential development, the importance of affordable housing and alternative modes of transportation, and the desired locations for all the different land uses of land that make up a city. Mostly, they give us a framework for thinking about who we are as a community and having a say in our destiny instead of morphing into homogenized inanity, the route taken by other Bozemans that today look all the same.

In Bozeman, just as in Missoula, realtors weigh in on growth policies, but seldom have I seen a local realtor (nor land developers arriving from other places having contributed to their ruin) publicly encourage citizen participation in the political process. And seldom if ever have I read a letter from a realtor to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle using words like these by Nugent: “The median income-earner in Missoula already struggles to afford the median-priced home in Missoula, which is not OK. People who work and live in Missoula should be able to own homes in Missoula.”

By contrast, Bozeman realtors and some members of the building industry frequently disparage the need for affordable housing, sometimes suggesting that people who seek affordable housing are hangdogs seeking handouts.  They also disparage regulations;  they condemn guidelines for protecting historic neighborhoods; they cheer the bulldozing of historic buildings as a victory for “progress.” At growth policy hearings in Bozeman, realtors argue for large lot subdivisions (big houses on big lots holding tons of square footage to make big paydays), “streamlined” regs which only accelerate lack of reflection, and a lowering of safeguards in the historic districts to speed gentrification.  They also advocate for lower impact fees (amid skyrocketing growth costs such as the need for new roads, schools, sewer-water lines, expanded fire and police protection)while showing little regard for policies that might actually expand home ownership to less-than-wealthy citizens.

Thus, I took Nugent’s letter as evidence of the genuineness my son applauds Missoula for; and it also caused me to reflect on the attitudes toward growth that predominate in Bozeman suggesting we learned nothing from the 2008 crash about real estate speculation. At the present moment, Bozeman’s top brass—representatives from the hospital, university, airport authority, and city and county governments—seem to embrace the notion that more is better:
More students (despite overcrowded classrooms). More houses. More business starts. More clinics. More flights to our outrageously over-named airport.  But what is the end-game of more for more’s sake?

One could argue the need for more is a valid response to population increase. Yet population increase itself owes in large part to the efforts of top brass from these organizations—with a lot of help from the state tourism board and state Chamber of Commerce—to recruit newcomers to our area, fueling an endless cycle of more resulting in less of what makes Bozeman and the surrounding environment special. For a couple of decades the tourism board and chamber have seen to it that glamorous images of Montana have been splashed on billboards and in glossy magazines reaching every corner of our country.

This desire for more, as the philosopher tells us, is endless. Worse than that, it quickens life so that moments are hard to see. And with time disappearing so quickly, there is less mindful reflection, less thoughtfulness about the nature of activities and the stuff that really matters—which is meaningful interconnection between people, landscape, place.

Just who  is all this “more” really for? Is it for your benefit? Is it for our children’s sake? It seems not. It seems that the amorphous “more” satisfies the aspirations of those who profit in dollar and reputation from making things grow and never asking the question if they are really striving to make things better.

Bozeman should no longer compromise identity and character for the sake of the business plans of a few.  Blind allegiance to more has made us all less conscientious of what our community is. And yet that is the direction Bozeman is heading, though we might not notice it, given that things are moving so fast around here that we have to run just to keep up.

But at least we sure look good (for now!) in tight lycra.

 

Editor's Note: Columnist, essayist and poet Steve Kirchhoff, a Bozeman native and world traveler, is a former Bozeman mayor and city commissioner. Today, Kirchhoff is an adjunct instructor at Montana State University.  Steve and his wife, Colette, a family physician, raised three children who were educated in the Bozeman Public Schools.  When not in the classroom or behind his writing desk, you may find Kirchhoff hiking a local trail or cruising on his classic old-school bicycle.