For much of rural Montana, brain drain has been a fact of life for decades.
Come high school graduation, the pattern goes, small towns see their most ambitious sons and daughters pack their bags, heading off to attend college or otherwise try out life somewhere else. And comparatively few of them ultimately come back.
Take Anaconda, population 9,000, a former company town abandoned by its founding industry in the 1980s. These days it faces a demographic gap, with only 22 percent of its residents in their 20s or 30s, 5 percent less than the U.S. as a whole.
And it’s not alone. Between 2000 and 2010, western Montana’s rural counties saw a net loss of more than 8,600 young people aged 15 to 29, according to U.S. Census data compiled by researchers at the University of Wisconsin. In comparison, the counties around college towns Missoula and Bozeman gained 20,400 young adults.
There are plenty of reasons young Montanans tend to seek lives outside rural communities — among them better wages, deeper dating pools and cultural amenities like music scenes and upscale restaurants. But if they’re going to thrive into the future, the state’s small towns need new generations of talent — families to keep their schools open, health professionals to staff their hospitals, leaders with the energy to start businesses, coach sports teams and run for the town council.
The state does have a number of dynamic young residents who’ve chosen to make lives in small towns, returning home after college or settling down in an adopted place. Talking to them, you hear about trade-offs like hustling at multiple jobs to make ends meet or to support an entrepreneurial dream.
You hear about upsides too, though: About Montana’s recreation and scenery, of course, plus about getting to know your small town neighbors in ways you can’t in cities. And, from some, about a conviction that their talents can make a difference when it comes to their community’s future.
“There have been people who put their blood, sweat and tears into keeping Anaconda alive,” said Kaitlin Leary, a fourth-generation resident there.
“There was somehow honor in coming home,” she said.
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As University of Montana geography professor Christiane von Reichert sees it, it’s natural that most rural kids move away after high school to get an education or explore other parts of the world.
But the key thing for their towns, she says, is figuring out how to draw enough of them back as 20- or 30-somethings, when they get to the point in life where they’re ready to settle down and raise families of their own.
Put another way: Where Montana towns are fading, it’s not because kids are moving away after high school. It’s because not enough of them are returning.
Excluding urban areas like Missoula and Kalispell, western Montana isn’t quite keeping up on that front, according to the UW statistics. As its rural counties lost those 8,600 15- to 29-year-old residents in the decade before 2010, they gained back only 5,700 between 30 and 44.
Where the region’s towns are holding their populations steady or growing, it’s often because they’re bolstered by older adults and retirees moving in — a total of 11,000 in the 2000s. Those older arrivals patronize local businesses and keep real estate prices up, but they’re less likely to help small town schools keep their classrooms full.
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So what is it that draws some of Montana’s rural kids back? And what can places like Anaconda do to win more young talent?
A decade ago, von Reichert and a research assistant took a stab at answering those questions, traveling around the country to interview attendees at small-town high school reunions. In all, they asked more than 300 people about where they had ended up living and why, focusing on remote communities with modest scenery, including at least one town in Eastern Montana.
In general, the returnees von Reichert talked to had children and had often moved home or followed a spouse so their kids could be close to grandparents. Many cited fond memories of a small-town childhood or pointed to small class sizes in rural schools.
But if family reasons drew people back to their hometowns, she found, job opportunity often made for an obstacle.
“There were a lot of people who were thinking of coming back — and couldn’t make a go of it,” she said.
And that, von Reichert thinks, is where communities have an opportunity: On making a move back home more doable for local kids on the cusp of pulling the trigger.
She pointed a town she saw during her research where residents had decided to tax themselves so they could provide grants to locals with business plans, and another that made a point of tracking the careers of its alumni so its businesses could reach out when they had job openings that would be a good fit.
In a 2015 policy paper, von Reichert and her assistant, Ryan Arthun, suggest communities invest in recreation and education — things that can help attract people in the family stage of life, where parents are particularly likely to weigh school quality in considering a move. They also point to the role high-speed internet access plays in supporting remote work or self-employment for workers in fields where there aren’t ready-made jobs back home.
“Know your clientele,” she said, saying rural boosters should understand the appeal of small-town life and promote it — understanding it isn’t for everybody.
Even years after von Reichert’s fieldwork, younger Montanans who’ve chosen to make their lives in small towns echo many of her conclusions as they explain their own paths. Being where they are often means some career sacrifice, they tend to say — but pays off in ways it’s harder to put a price on.
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Riley Black, 27, was born and raised in Libby, then came home after earning a nursing degree from Montana State University-Northern in Havre. With her family still around, she saw it as a natural jumping off point, she said — but then she was offered a good job at the county health department.
She’s now been there a year-and-a-half. And last year, she and her husband, a chef, opened a Mediterranean restaurant in Libby, the Black Board Bistro.
Being foodies in Libby isn’t easy, Black said — the couple, who have an infant, end up traveling to Whitefish or Sandpoint, Idaho, for date nights. And she said she would have more career opportunity in nursing working someplace like Missoula.
Plus, being in healthcare in Libby — where the Environmental Protection Agency declared a public health emergency over mine-legacy asbestos pollution in 2009 — makes for hard, exhausting work. With the region’s high unemployment, she and her coworkers commonly work with complex health problems, Black said — things like patients with untreated diabetes who haven’t seen a doctor in 20 years.
She worries about getting burnt out in the long run, she said, but “would kind of feel like I was abandoning my community” if she left for somewhere else. And besides, she doesn’t think there’s anywhere for Libby to go but up.
“We have some really brilliant people with a lot of ambition,” she said. “That, I think, is what keeps me here.”
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Mark Major, 42, first moved to Choteau, population 1,686, to serve as a county Extension agent. These days, though, he runs an insurance and finance firm out of Great Falls, an hour away in good weather.
With most of his clients in the city, it would have been easier for him to relocate there when he took over the business, but he said he wanted to keep his family with four school-aged kids in a small town with a close-knit school.
“It’s not just I know the teacher — I know the teacher’s family, I know the house they live in, a lot of times I know their family history,” he said. “I like that connectivity.”
Technology makes it easier to run his business partially from a distance, Major said, meaning he’s able to get away with making the drive to Great Falls two or three days a week. But he’s had to train his customers to make appointments when he’s in the city instead of just letting them swing by the office at their convenience.
He also said his church, an LDS ward, provides him with a support network in Choteau, as it has in other places he’s been.
“No matter where you live,” he said, “there’s always a congregation that’s very open and accepting.”
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For Shaun Lewis, 35, the chief operating officer of Clearwater Montana Properties in Seeley Lake, the state has ended up more than just a vacation spot.
His parents were from White Sulphur Springs, he said, but left the state themselves in search of opportunity. As a result, he grew up in California, visiting Montana occasionally but never thinking he’d move here.
Lewis served in the Navy, graduated from law school and worked for the federal government as a civilian, he said. Then, in his late 20s, he decided to re-tool his career, attending business school at the University of Washington and Harvard in an effort to end up in a senior role at a technology company.
He was “pretty much set” on taking an offer from Microsoft to fill a director-level position in Hong Kong, Lewis said, when his grandmother told him about the opening at Clearwater, which bills itself as the largest real estate company in the state. As he thought about it, he said, the idea of returning to the family home grew on him.
Working in a “coastal profession” means moving around a lot, he said, which makes it hard to put down roots or keep your kids in consistent schools. And living in big cities, he had a multi-hour commute.
Plus there’s plenty of business opportunity in Montana, Lewis said — things like introducing new business ideas or restaurant models that have been pioneered on the coasts. And, because people are more approachable, it’s easier to make business connections.
“It’s actually kind of a magical place to be an entrepreneur,” he said.
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And Leary, for her part, didn’t originally think she’d come home to Anaconda. Instead, she aspired to become a foreign service officer — leaving Montana for college in Oregon, then studying in Ireland, Russia, Washington, D.C., and Switzerland.
“When I was in the thick of it, it lost its appeal,” she said. “I wasn’t finding what I hoped to find in a larger international city like Geneva.”
She moved back to Anaconda in 2012, working initially as a technical analyst for a Superfund nonprofit, then as a county planner. At 31, she’s now the director of a housing agency and part of Anaconda’s development board.
Being in Anaconda does mean lower wages than her grad school peers are making, Leary said — and, with limited job opportunities, a “slog getting to where I want to be.”
But she likes the slower pace of life, and has concluded she can have more impact working in her hometown, still recovering from the 1980 closure of its namesake smelter.
“I don't imagine this town will ever complete me professionally,” she said, “but on a personal level, I feel rich.”
And, besides, it’s hard to beat a place where the bartender has your favorite drink ready when you walk in.
“When you claim a spot,” she said, “there’s something kind of special about being a regular.”