Belgrade aims to ‘re-seek’ identity amid shifting economy, planning struggles
BELGRADE — A trail of headlights pass the airport each weeknight a bit after 5 p.m. They’re making their way to one of Belgrade’s newest subdivisions. With each mile, their backdrop — the shadowy outline of the Bridgers — grows slightly.
In the Ryen Glenn subdivision there are quarter-acre lots, front porches for sitting, toys in yards and neighbors who wave.
People who live there describe it as a sanctuary for those who want the picket fence with room for the dog to run and the kids to learn to throw a football. In contrast, a dozen miles down the road Bozeman focuses on infill — neighborhoods with alleys in the back and homes close together — and changing expectations from the quintessential starter home to a townhouse or apartment.
The Christensens say that difference is why they picked Belgrade over Bozeman.
“We all work in Bozeman, but when we come home we’re not just shutting our doors and windows,” said Liesel Christensen. “We have a quiet neighborhood with room for our kids to play. It feels like a small town even with the growth.”
Her husband Blake Christensen said that’s intentional.
“For the whole community of Belgrade, we’re creating a community by design instead of default,” Blake said.
As more people show up in the Gallatin Valley, it’s changed the makeup of the small western towns with histories around ranching and farming. But for Belgrade, a place built as a rail pitstop, its newest locals and leaders say the population growth means the city has the chance to define itself however it wants.
Or as new Belgrade Planning Board member Judy Doyle puts it, “We’re investing in the community we choose to buy into.”
“We’re not this sleepy little town anymore,” she said. “And we’re moving away from being the worker bees of Bozeman.”
Built on speculation
Mayor Russ Nelson went over the list of Belgrade’s attributes: It’s an agricultural town with a train through the middle. It’s a quiet place that has more people than it once did. And, he added with a gesture around his downtown Bozeman office, “it’s a bedroom community to Bozeman.”
“We’ll continue to grow and the borders between Bozeman and Belgrade will continue to get closer,” he said.
Belgrade has a few things in common with its neighbors. For starters, locals often connect to the community and each other through the school system. That makes sense for two reasons: School events create shared experiences, and leaders said there are more than 20,000 people in the school district while they estimate Belgrade’s population is a shade above 8,500.
“The community doesn’t start and stop at our city limit lines,” said City Manager Ted Barkley, citing the school numbers and listing the old and new subdivisions encircling the city.
The difference between Belgrade and places like Three Forks, Manhattan and Livingston is that its past has always been somewhat tied to Bozeman.
Barkley likes to say Belgrade was built on speculation. It was created to become the railroad stop closest to Bozeman. The town, platted before the tracks arrived, got its name from Serbia’s capital as a nod to the international businessmen who helped stretch the Northern Pacific Railroad to southwest Montana.
“The investors came out for a big celebration, got off the train, looked around and then ran and all sold their stock,” Barkley said. “And that’s how Belgrade was born.”
Despite the investors’ doubt, by 1886 more than half the grain raised in the valley came through Belgrade. Two years later, the warehouses were so full of grain the town didn’t have a place to hold its annual ball.
While it was all built “on a hunch and a prayer,” in Barkley’s words, by 1888 Belgrade was the largest shipper of grain between Seattle and Minneapolis.
He said the city’s proximity to Bozeman from its genesis means it skipped a few steps, like having a downtown with a presence that matched its community. And the storefronts that did exist didn’t always stick around when Interstate 90’s creation made it easier for the town to rely on Bozeman shops.
People in city hall are also quick to point out Belgrade is the largest city in Montana “by far” that’s not a county seat — meaning none of the historic power, buildings or business that come attached to a courthouse and jail.
But Barkley said Gallatin County’s growth today means enough people are landing in Belgrade to potentially carve out an identity separate from Bozeman.
“The Belgrade that’s big enough and growing fast enough to take planning seriously, that Belgrade is not very old,” Barkley said. “And now, it’s the year of planning. The map of our future is being designed.”
The year of planning
Barkley said many of Belgrade’s guiding documents have draft dates from 2008. Planning Director Jason Karp said it’s an indicator of the impact the recession had on the community, as well as where it is today.
“It just paused everything,” Karp said of the downturn. “We kind of sat here very quietly for a few years, then about 2014 things started rolling again all at once.”
While Bozeman’s population is nearing the 50,000-person threshold that will classify it as a metropolitan city, Belgrade is watching its population count tilt toward 10,000, a mark that will bring with it its own set of standards and expectations.
Moreover, the local school district has grown to the point where Belgrade High will soon be classified in Class AA.
All the growth means Karp’s office is working hard to keep up.
This spring the city is scheduled to release master plans for its water, sewer and transportation systems. The planning department also has updating its growth policy on its 2018 to-do list.
In addition, the city recently approved hiring a consultant to see whether it would be better for Belgrade to create its own fire department — a Montana requirement of that 10,000 population mark — or try to convince state lawmakers to let Belgrade join an existing fire district.
Simply put, a lot’s happening in the city.
Karp said his department devotes the largest chunk of time to reviewing residential, single-home developments in the area. Belgrade issueda record number of permits for single-family homes in 2017 — 143 last year, topping the record of 124.
“Bozeman and Belgrade are like two planets orbiting each other where the other [Montana] cities are pretty much on their own. But Belgrade has a more suburban lifestyle,” he said. “I think it all fits together and makes us what we are.”
Karp said it’s no longer just about finding less expensive housing compared to what’s in Bozeman. When lots went for sale in Ryen Glenn roughly 18 months ago, many were going for $45,000. Today, they’re selling for upwards of $100,000.
He said in part, that’s because Belgrade is catering to the suburban desires of families who can’t find that lifestyle in Bozeman. But as far as services and tax impacts, homes are typically a break-even proposition for cities, and Karp said he hopes the increasing population leads to filling in the missing pieces of Belgrade. Specifically, the city’s downtown.
“We’re never going to have that kitschy shopping area that you see in a lot of places. But we can reclaim our city core,” he said. “It’s a good place to build, it has good bones, it just needs to be revitalized a little bit.”
To Bozeman, a slowing tide?
Eve Parrow is about as involved as they come in Belgrade. In addition to her day job as a real estate broker, Parrow serves as the vice president of the board for the Chamber of Commerce, as well as on the Chamber’s Economic Development Committee.
In Parrow’s eyes, the residential side of things will likely take care of itself. Instead, the focus — from a city perspective at least — should be on commercial development, which not only contributes more to the tax base but also represents a critical component of any self-sustaining, independent community.
Late last year, in the city’s effort to reanimate a downtown that it describedas “dilapidat(ed),” “defective” and “unsafe,” Belgrade leaders finalized a special tax district blanketing much of Main Street and the surrounding blocks. In theory, the district will raise money earmarked for infrastructure improvements, as well as business recruitment and retention efforts. Historically these tax-based renewal strategies have achieved mixed results (one such district in Bozeman raised just $167 over four years), but Parrow is optimistic.
“It’s going to really help develop the infrastructure like curbs, gutters and sidewalks,” she said, which will, in turn, make it a more attractive place for locals, visitors and prospective businesses.
That’s not to say the area is economically unhealthy. There are a pair of large employers in construction giant Knife River and biotechnology company Xtant Medical. There are also contributors such as the school system and smaller private employers (Albertsons and Town & Country) that represent the bedrock of any diverse business landscape. Then there’s the consistent bump provided by the nearby and ever-expanding airport, as well as planned commercial projects like the Yellowstone Airport Plaza, which, while controversial, many see as a future economic anchor.
The opening of the city’s $10 million medical clinicin 2016 is a good example of the multi-faceted impact Parrow likes to reference. The clinic has not only brought a handful of good-paying jobs to the area but also, notwithstanding serious or specialized treatment, saved locals a trip down the highway to the Bozeman hospital.
“All of a sudden you have a bunch of new jobs created and people don’t have to drive 20 minutes for medical care,” Parrow said. “It’s huge.”
There are, however, some missing pieces, and Parrow hears two refrains echoed constantly: Where can I go for a burger and a beer? And where do I shop for a pair of socks?
“It’s a couple of those key ingredients that keep people here that we don’t really have,” she said.
The numbers bear this out. Since 2012, Belgrade added 25,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. That’s less than half that of the Four Corners area and a fraction of the nearly 225,000 square feet Bozeman built over the same period. The comparisons run similar for office space.
Of the some 350 businesses in Belgrade city limits, 41 are food- or accommodation-related.
In search of some wriggle room in an industry with vice-tight profit margins, restaurateurs often choose to set up shop in Bozeman, which, with its high visitor numbers and booming downtown, represents less of a gamble, rather than Belgrade.
But there’s hope now that the outgoing tide might be slowing.
For one, a recent change in liquor license laws will ensure that at least a few licenses remain in Belgrade (in the past, many of these licenses were sold to Bozeman ownerswith deeper pockets than their Belgrade counterparts). Alcohol sales can often spell the difference between life or death for a restaurant, and the new rule ensures that at least a few more eateries will get a shot at survival.
Cindy Brown, whose Main Street restaurant the Desert Rose closed after it lost its liquor license, said that new law is almost certain to retain more restaurants in the area.
“If that law was the case when we were around, we would probably still be in business,” Brown said. “It’s a huge benefit.”
For Brown, the downtown revitalization effort and importance of restaurants as community spaces go hand in hand.
“It’s so easy to just pop on the interstate and just hit any one of the chain restaurants (in Bozeman),” she said. “You have to create new habits for people and opportunities for them to want to drive down Main Street.”
There’s a sense, though, that the scale is beginning to tip in the opposite direction and that Bozeman is beginning to outprice new business owners, funneling them toward the less expensive neighbor to the west.
Joe Dahinden, who helped run what was then Valley Bank in downtown Belgrade for nearly two decades, describes the relationship between the two cities as reciprocal. Like many, he believes attempting to make Belgrade a completely self-supported place would be fighting a losing battle.
“There’s a sector of the population that’s truly a bedroom community; they are there strictly for economics,” he said.
But come out to the Festival of Lights, the Fall Festival Parade or nearly any school sporting event and it’s clear that the vast majority are invested not just economically but emotionally, too.
“There’s a real sense of pride and community,” Dahinden said.
And while the sock shops and burger joints might be slow to appear, the city has added a healthy smattering of industrial industry.
Belgrade tops the county-wide ranks in terms of industrial construction, adding nearly 1 million square feet of warehouse-style space since 2000, five times Bozeman’s amount.
Historically speaking, Belgrade’s industrial growth is well in keeping with the city’s roots — the first building constructed in town after the railroad tracks was a large warehouse to store grain. This growth, however, has not been enough to stem the steady stream of residents who, as Barkley described, double dip, living in Belgrade and working in Bozeman.
More than two-thirds of Belgrade residents commute 15 minutes or more to work. The motivation, perhaps, is a story of quantity and choice: For every 10 jobs created in Gallatin County, eight are located in Bozeman.
But between the growth, the slightly mishmashed economy, it’s easy to see why Belgrade is, as Brown puts it, “re-seeking” its identity.
“It used to be a cowboy town, a ranching town and a farming town, and it’s not that anymore,” she said. “As far as a single identity, we don’t have that anymore. But what we do have is good people.”
Away from Bozeman’s shadow
Tiffany Maierle describes Belgrade, her home of 12 years, as a place where people are trying to “build it back up again.” Maierle owns rentals in Bozeman and is grateful for its proximity, but she lives in Belgrade because of the people and the slower pace. And she wants others to understand that.
“We have so many families in this town who have been here for generations,” she said. “We’re searching for this identity because we’re hoping to prove to everyone that Belgrade is pretty cool. I don’t think we have to be in Bozeman’s shadow anymore.”
She said it is a challenge for the longtime locals and new Belgrade residents to create an image of Belgrade that matches up. But cohesion is happening, albeit slowly.
As president of the Belgrade Community Foundation, Maierle is one of those people trying to make sure the city is connected, through events, trails and relationships. She said she’s already seeing progress.
“People are starting to think of Belgrade first, ‘Where can I do my shopping here? Where can I volunteer here?’” Maierle said. “What comes with that is a sense of pride and really taking care of your town, your community, your neighbors.”
The neighbors at Ryan Glenn like to describe Belgrade as “in transition,” “in flux” or, despite its 130-year history, “in its infancy.”
The shuffle of little sock-covered feet running back and forth echoes in the background in the Christensens’ home as their sons, 4 and 7, play in the basement. Though it was a weeknight, neighbors gathered around plates of crackers and fruit on the kitchen island that Liesel kept stocked.
The neighboring Doyles, whose kids are grown and out of the house, saved for years through a handyman side job before they picked their spot in Ryan Glenn in 2016.
Jim Doyle was raised in Belgrade through the 1970s and 1980s. He used to ride a dirt bike through the fields — the same ones now under development — to a friend’s trailer that stood alone on the land.
He and his wife, Judy, talk about whether rising prices will prevent other working families like them from affording life in Belgrade. They talk about the yearly events from their past and how they exist today. They talk about the city’s future.
“We want to feel connected to this community,” Judy said. “I don’t want Belgrade to be known as ‘Below-grade’ anymore.”
The families in the room all work in Bozeman. But they want the hair salons in Belgrade, the local coffee shops and restaurants. They also want the annual community events that result in crowds of familiar faces.
Liesel says if the core is there, “it gives us a place to belong.”
“We may work in Bozeman, but we don’t necessarily belong there,” she said. “Even if we worked our entire careers in Bozeman, as long as we have ways to celebrate, eat and play here, we’ll choose Belgrade.”