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‘Come Home Montana’ push collides with housing angst

by AMANDA EGGERT Montana Free Press
| May 14, 2022 12:00 AM

When Greg Gianforte was first campaigning to become Montana’s governor in 2016, there was one number that came up over and over again at campaign events: 49.

That, he said during a televised debate with then-Gov. Steve Bullock, was Montana’s rank for wages among the nation’s 50 states. Gianforte said that statistic — and Montana’s unfortunate distinction of being “dead last in income for our kids” — factored heavily into his decision to run for public office.

He didn’t win in 2016, but when he ran again in 2020 — this time successfully — wage growth and professional opportunity for young Montanans continued to anchor Gianforte’s platform.

“Too many Montanans across our state have seen their kids and grandkids move away for better opportunities — better jobs for better pay,” Gianforte’s Montana Comeback Plan says. “Sadly, our state’s most valuable export is our kids and grandkids. We must reverse that trend.”

Now, with the reins of state government in his hands, Gianforte, a Republican, has the opportunity to make good on that goal. He’s using folded cardstock, glossy photos, and the Montana Department of Commerce’s marketing budget to help.

Since Gianforte took office, the commerce department has embarked on a massive “Come Home Montana” promotional campaign, launching a website last summer, buying social media ads, and sending out a series of mailers designed to entice former residents to return. As of late April, according to a spokesperson, the department had spent about $701,000 on the effort, funded from the state’s hotel bed tax collections.

The most recent round of mailers, which went out last month, was sent to approximately 122,000 Montana college graduates using addresses provided by alumni associations for Montana State University, the University of Montana, Carroll College and others.

“The governor’s clarity motivates this campaign: parents and grandparents want their kids and grandkids to stay in Montana or come back home if they’ve left,” department spokesperson Anastasia Burton said in an email. “At the Department of Commerce, we’ve taken that charge and launched the Come Home Montana campaign to bring Montanans back home, bring families back together, and bring Montanans back to our communities to plant their roots.”

The most recent mailing, a fold-out brochure, highlights remote work and entrepreneurial opportunities and Montana’s famously photogenic rivers and mountains. It also makes appeals to the state’s western culture and quality of life: opportunities to know your neighbors, shorten your commute and obtain a quality education. “What if you returned to your values?” reads one panel of the mailer.

The campaign has generated considerable conversation, both inside and outside Montana, with recipients posting images of the mailing on social media and others commenting on the campaign in group chats.

Montana Free Press spoke with nine mailer recipients for their take on the campaign. Their responses were mixed, with some saying it summoned a yearning for a place they have a strong connection to and others expressing skepticism about who state government is — and isn’t — courting with the mailing. Still others took a vaguely dismissive tone toward the mailing, saying they worried that encouraging more people to compete for Montana’s limited housing supply could ultimately make it impossible for them to return themselves. Montana’s “crazy real estate market” came up frequently in MTFP’s conversations with mailer recipients, a reflection of the state’s growing pains as Montana’s amenities appear on more Americans’ radars.

In south-central Montana, Gallatin County’s population increased 33% between 2010 and 2020, fueling concerns about housing affordability, urban sprawl and water supply. In Missoula, the state’s second-largest city, the median home price has ballooned 66% over the past two years and successful buyers are increasingly making cash offers, which can distort valuations by driving sales prices well above asking price. And it’s not just Bozeman and Missoula: the Wall Street Journal named Billings the No. 1 emerging housing market in the country last July, and Helena recently made the San Francisco Chronicle’s list of “Ten real estate markets on the cusp of a San Francisco-style affordability crisis.”

The state’s surging popularity amid the COVID-19 pandemic — Montana added an estimated 18,000 residents between 2020 and 2021 — is therefore creating acute economic pain for current residents, especially those worried about increasingly out-of-reach rent or real estate. A recent poll commissioned by the University of Montana’s Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative found that 77% of Montanans describe lack of affordable housing as a serious problem, and 57% of respondents say the state is growing too fast.

Gianforte spokesperson Travis Hall defended the governor’s promotional efforts. Many parents and grandparents want their kids to return, he said, adding that it bolsters the state economy when Montana kids and university alumni choose to build their lives and careers in the state.

“Individuals who grew up or went to school in Montana have ties to our communities and understand our Montana way of life,” Hall said in an email. “When they return to Montana and bring their good-paying jobs and families with them, our communities are better off, and our way of life preserved.”

Hall bristled at a question about whether the governor had considered holding off on the campaign until the state’s housing market is cooler.

“We’re not going to, as you describe, “take the pedal off the gas” in our effort to reunite families, create greater opportunities here in Montana, and make our communities stronger,” Hall wrote.

THE "COME Home” message clearly has appeal — and not just to older Montanans who wish their grandkids lived a little closer.

St. Louis, Missouri, native Peter Lucier said he moved to Montana in 2015 on a whim. A fellow Marine from Lucier’s deployment in Afghanistan had convinced him to move to Montana, sight unseen, to attend MSU. Lucier used G.I. Bill funding to enroll in political science classes, took a job as a security guard at the Yellowstone Club, and fell in love with Montana’s outdoor access and the way he could run into someone he knew just about any night in downtown Bozeman.

Concerns that staying in Bozeman would hamper his professional and financial prospects led Lucier to move back to Missouri after he graduated in 2018. He’s currently enrolled in law school at Saint Louis University and has no plans to move back to Montana, though he said he takes annual trips to the state to reconnect with friends and favorite landscapes.

When Lucier received the Come Home mailer, he described the experience as being called out by a piece of paper on his kitchen table. He said one phrase in particular — “What did you leave behind when you left Montana?” — prompted a Robert Frost-style examination of his path not taken.

“That’s a provocative question, that’s a challenge,” he said of the phrase, which is accompanied by an image of a man and woman walking down a gravel road at dusk. “I’m not an ad guy, but ‘What did you leave behind?’ immediately triggered thoughts of ‘Did you leave something on the table?’ or ‘Did you leave something undone?’” He said it brought to mind a line from “Mad Men,” the television series about a Manhattan advertising firm set in the 1960s: nostalgia is pain from an old wound.

Grace Becker, an architectural designer who grew up in Billings and Roundup, said “What did you leave behind?” hit her like “a giant heart pang, a punch in the gut.” Becker, who graduated from MSU in 2019, shares eastern Montana roots with her husband, who, like her, grew up on a wheat farm. They’re currently living near Norfolk, Virginia, where her husband serves in the Navy as a submarine officer.

“We’re both Montana kids that want desperately to be in Montana, it’s just not in the cards for us right now,” she said. “If they had submarines in Fort Peck, we would be there for life.”

Becker said it will probably be another 10 years before a return to Montana is feasible for the couple. Contemplating how the state might change in the interim makes her anxious.

“I feel a little silly as the person who doesn’t want my home to change while I’m gone, but we are those people that hope there are some things that are the same by the time we can get back,” she said.

SOME "COME Home” recipients who are, at least on paper, ideal targets for the campaign’s message, however, said they have misgivings about its timing, or feel wary about the audience the state is courting with the appeal.

Juliet DeMasi grew up in Cut Bank and graduated from the University of Montana in 1991. A year later, a desire to see the world inspired her to leave her home state. She earned a law degree from New York University and raised two kids in the New York area. A recruiter who connects lawyers with job opportunities, DeMasi checks the “remote worker” box the Commerce Department is targeting with the campaign.

She said one portion of the mailer’s message, though, rubbed her the wrong way.

“It’s a picture of a church and everyone is wearing flannel, and all the women are wearing skirts. It says, ‘What if you return to your values?’ It was just really insulting. What does that mean — that I crossed state lines and all of the values from the 21 years I lived in Montana leached out of me? I just didn’t get what they were trying to accomplish.”

DeMasi said she was so piqued by the mailer and its message that she posted a photo of it on Facebook to see how it resonated with others in her network. Several of her Montana-based friends were “really ticked off” by the campaign, she said.

“They couldn’t believe that state tax dollars were spent trying to get people to bring their remote jobs back to Montana and potentially make this crazy real estate market even worse. They were like, ‘You got what?’”

Though DeMasi and her husband have considered buying a second home in Montana, relocating permanently has never been a subject of serious discussion. She said she has a hard time imagining how anyone would base such a momentous decision on a pamphlet.

Juliette Rule, a Gallatin Valley native who left the state shortly after graduating from MSU in 1997 with a degree in English literature, also mentioned housing in her assessment of the mailer. After about 15 years working in various Wyoming cities, Rule now lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and works remotely for social networking platform Nextdoor. She and her husband, a Colorado native who also telecommutes for work, are probably as close to the campaign’s ideal audience as you could find, but she said they couldn’t be adequately incentivized to make the move, especially with so much consternation around housing.

“I can afford to live in Bozeman — if I can find a place to live — but it just feels sort of cannibalistic,” she said. “I wonder if Gianforte goes on the Bozeman subreddit, because it is not a happy place.”

The 15,000-subscriber web forum she cited routinely sees posts from users frustrated with the city’s housing costs. Some commenters blame regulation, red tape and slow permitting processes for suppressing the volume of housing stock hitting the market. Others criticize developers who cater to only the wealthiest buyers with million-dollar condos, and still others lament micro- and macro- housing policy failures. The Come Home mailer was also discussed on the forum, with one user describing the recruitment effort as “pouring gasoline on the housing market fire in Montana.”

While exasperated residents vent their frustration online, the median home price in Bozeman continues to climb. In the last quarter, it increased 24% year-over-year to $821,000. Some families, many of them in the workforce, have taken to living in RVs and motorhomes along the city’s edges. Family Promise, a nonprofit that runs an emergency shelter, said last June it had logged a 238% increase in the number of families it assisted over the prior summer.

Hall, the governor’s spokesperson, noted that new housing stock has lagged behind population growth in Montana on a long-term basis and said the Gianforte administration is focused on streamlining permitting, improving private-public partnerships and boosting trades education to grow Montana’s construction workforce in response to the shortage.

OTHER MAILER recipients focused on the campaign’s lack of diversity and use of church imagery, saying in interviews with MTFP and on a lively Twitter thread that it read like a not-so-subtle political cue.

Lila Byock, a Los Angeles-based television writer and producer who grew up in Missoula, Livingston and Billings, said in an interview that the campaign strikes her as an effort to exploit national political divisions.

“It feels like it’s trying to appeal to white conservatives who might be, quote, unquote, fed up with the crime and diversity in whatever urban areas or suburbs they’re living in now and trying to message that Montana is still a white space for you to come back to,” she said.

Byock said even the campaign’s subtle sepia tone seems designed to channel an earlier and ostensibly better time. To her, she said, it read like it was meant to convey an implicit message: “Remember when you weren’t afraid to say you were a Christian and you could go to church with your family and people weren’t trying to push their woke nonsense down your throat?”

Byock also said the mailer’s religious symbolism is inconsistent with the Montana she remembers.

“I always appreciated that Montana was a place where people felt like they were united by their love of place, even if they differed privately on political issues and religious issues,” she said. “When I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, there was this feeling of, ‘We don’t like to talk about politics, we don’t like to talk about religion. We’re all Montanans.’”

Jason Dormady, a Central Washington University history professor who grew up in Power, a town of 180 northwest of Great Falls, echoed Byock’s assessment of the church imagery as out-of-place. He said it seemed designed to evoke a “mythical West morality” and made him uncomfortable, even though he identifies as religious and is a member of the Church of Latter-day Saints.

“We’re a proselytizing, evangelizing kind of church, but growing up in Montana I did not do that. You really did not talk about religious stuff with people. I grew up in a town with a lot of Lutherans and Catholics, but didn’t even know what religion most of my classmates were.”

Hall waved off these critiques, saying, “the governor encourages Montanans who’ve moved away, regardless of their faith, to come home.” The state’s focus, he said, is “on growing opportunities here, bringing Montananas back home, reuniting families, making our communities stronger, and protecting our way of life — not on placating trolls and conspiracy theorists on Twitter.”

THE ECONOMIC forces shaping Montana — and angst about them — are playing out in other western states, too. Housing affordability is an issue nationally, and similar gentrification dynamics are playing out in other places teeming with the kind of amenities that are right at home on postcards: mountains, rivers, wildlife and wide open spaces.

For decades, Americans have been “voting with their feet” for such quality-of-life factors in relocating to states like Idaho, Utah and Colorado, retired University of Montana economics professor Thomas Power told MTFP. For a long time, that meant forgoing the larger salaries available to workers living in metropolitan markets like New York City, San Francisco or Seattle in favor of a “second paycheck” afforded by recreational opportunities and access to clean air and water. Power wrote a book about the dynamic in 1980 titled “The Economic Value of the Quality of Life.”

Gianforte himself is an example of an entrepreneur attracted to Montana for its quality of life. Born in California, he has described a formative junior high school trip to Red Lodge when discussing his decision to move to Montana decades later with his family. His daughter was born in Bozeman, though she and two of her brothers are now living in other states, according to the Gianforte Family Foundation website. One of the Gianfortes’ sons is living in Bozeman.

When the Gianfortes launched software company RightNow Technologies from their spare bedroom, Bozeman was half the size it is now and better known for its local ski hill and land grant university than for its potential as a tech hub. But even in the ’90s, Gianforte recognized the internet’s potential for making such relocations possible, he told KTVH in 2020.

“The whole concept was we wanted to raise our family in Montana,” Gianforte said. “And I thought the internet created an opportunity to really remove the barriers of geography. I came here and people said, `Well, no one has ever done that before, Greg.’ But I saw the potential.”

COVID-19 has taken that potential and thrown it into overdrive by facilitating a global shift to remote work, which decouples a worker’s ability to garner nationally competitive wages from their physical location. In the past two years, much ink has been spilled about so-called Zoomtowns facing increasing wealth disparity as they attract well-paid, location-flexible remote workers.

Such ripple effects can help explain why — and where — Montanans are experiencing anxiety about growth. Respondents to the UM poll who live in burgeoning communities like Bozeman and Missoula were much more likely to say growth is happening “too fast” in their community, compared to those living in areas experiencing more modest population gains.

Megan Lawson, an economist who researches public lands, outdoor recreation and economic development for Bozeman- and Helena-based nonprofit Headwaters Economics, said the state would be well served to drill into these location-specific complexities, especially since other places that have launched recruitment campaigns — Tulsa, Oklahoma and West Virginia, for example — have demonstrated their potential.

“There’s evidence that it brings people back, but the question is, does it generate sustained economic development, and does it generate it in the places where you want it?” she said. “I think if we’re thinking about a holistic economic development strategy for the state, they’d be really well served to figure out how to recruit people to Montana communities that want those new residents. Not everyone does.”

SABRE MOORE, an Ekalaka resident with a special interest in rural vitality, said she can appreciate both the economic development potential presented by the Come Home Montana campaign and how it could inflame frustrations around housing and infrastructure. A doctoral candidate in MSU’s American Studies program and director of the Carter County Museum, Moore has a personal and professional stake in the issue.

Last year Moore assisted MSU Extension with a “newcomers” survey that sought to learn more about the motivations of people who bought property in a new Montana zip code between 2016 and 2021. Moore said the survey’s findings underscore how heavily people weigh quality-of-life factors in their relocation decisions, and how much appetite there is right now for smaller communities and a slower pace of life — the kind of difficult-to-quantify amenities referenced in the Come Home Montana mailer with phrases like “What if you knew your neighbors by name again?” and “Your job won’t be the only thing that defines you.”

Moore also said the survey found that many newcomers are moving to smaller communities and becoming involved in those communities. Most of the survey’s respondents, 73%, moved somewhere they’d never lived before, and about one-quarter reported volunteering in their new hometown. That involvement brings a civic energy that’s often welcome in smaller towns, Moore said.

“Generally in rural communities, there are 10 or 12 people who do everything, so it’s nice to know that newcomers want to help, to share the load and be a part of the community,” she said.

At the same time, housing is a real issue in rural communities, too, Moore said. She was completely committed to living in Ekalaka (population: 400) when she joined the museum’s staff in 2016, but it took her three years to find a house there to buy. Other infrastructure, like sewer upgrades and access to broadband internet, could also use some support, she said.

“I think the state needs to look at addressing some of those challenges in concert with the [Come Home] campaign,” Moore said.

Montana ranked last in a recent review of state broadband access compiled by BroadbandNow, an internet access advocacy group. The state Legislature and Gianforte administration have allocated $266 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding toward expanding broadband access across the state.

Asked if she thinks the mailer will drive relocations to Montana, Moore said it might not generate immediate moves, but she can see how it would spark conversations and lodge the prospect in someone’s mind.

“It might plant a seed,” she said.

Amanda Eggert is a reporter with the Montana Free Press, a Helena-based nonprofit newsroom. Eric Dietrich contributed to this report.