|Although half of the students indicated that their parents worked for Stillwater Mining Co., none of them planned to do so themselves.|
Team hopes to give boost to Absarokee
By LINDA HALSTEAD-ACHARYA
Of The Gazette Staff 5.19.05
ABSAROKEE - To Al Jones, Absarokee is a conundrum. Unraveling that mystery will be his task in the next four weeks.
Jones, a regional development officer for the state Department of Commerce, headed up a Montana Economic Developers Association (MEDA) resource team that spent two days in Absarokee this week. Its mission: to help the community develop and foster its own plan for economic development.
What puzzled Jones were the anomalies - that a town with a potential to thrive continues to struggle.
"Stillwater County has the highest per capita income in the state," he said. "It's got one of the best tax bases. It's got long-term, high-wage jobs that draw people. Most of the towns are just begging for that."
And yet, in the past few years, Absarokee has lost its only drugstore, a clothing store, a feed store and the only gas station in town. At the same time, the school's enrollment dropped from Class B to Class C.
Woodard Avenue, the town's main street, is itself a dichotomy. The road, sidewalks and decorative planters are brand new. But sprinkled among the active businesses are vacant storefronts posted with for-rent or for-sale signs.
Absarokee is poised to change all that. The effort started with a few local business people who decided to do more than "work hard to get by."
"It started last year," said Lucille Mooney, owner of Classic Glass and one of the people responsible for bringing the MEDA team to town. "Every time you'd get together, the same topics would come up. 'The traffic's not so heavy anymore and the businesses are closing.' "
So Mooney, Absarokee accountant Linda Harris and a few others decided to act. They met with Tom Kaiserski, then county planner, who linked them with Beartooth Resource, Conservation and Development in Joliet and MEDA. In short order, MEDA paid a visit and decided to conduct an assessment. Best of all, Mooney said, the only cost to the community is the cost of providing lodging, meals and refreshments for the resource team.
The assessment involved interviewing more than 200 of the community's 1,200 residents. Those who participated were asked about the community's problems, challenges, assets and strengths. They were also asked what they would like to see implemented in the next two, five, 10 or 20 years.
In about four weeks, the resource team will return with suggestions for realistic, viable projects and resources that will help the community implement those projects.
"They (resource team) have done this 31 times and there were comments brought up in Absarokee that were not brought up anywhere else," Mooney said.
The high school students who were interviewed, like students everywhere, complained about the lack of activities.
"You can go cliff-jumping (on the Stillwater River), but there's nothing to do in town," said senior Shaunivon Vorhes.
But they also spoke of circumstances their more urban counterparts could hardly imagine. The closest fast-food restaurant is 14 miles away in Columbus, the closest movie theater is another 40 miles, and even the closest gas station is three miles out of town - and it's only open until 9 p.m.
They liked - and disliked - the fact that everybody knows everybody. They spoke about the town's cleanliness, its lack of violence and the way the community supports them.
Although half of the students indicated that their parents worked for Stillwater Mining Co., none of them planned to do so themselves. About a third raised their hands when asked if they might retire in Absarokee.
"We always ask this question and almost every kid says they're leaving town," Jones said. "Here, there were more kids considering coming back."
Down the street at the senior center, Bob Graham, who will soon celebrate his 104th birthday, brought a list to share with the resource team. His list included the businesses that had left Absarokee during his decades there and the improvements that had come about.
Some senior citizens spoke about a need for a full-time doctor and a pharmacy. One mentioned how much the Cobblestone School had made a difference. Another suggested that public restrooms might get people to stop.
Dave Luera, who retired to Absarokee 10 years ago, likes the small-town atmosphere.
"I wouldn't change anything," he said. "I'm not sure we want Absarokee to grow too much."
Larry Wittman was so impressed with a thought he had heard that he felt it needed repeating.
"We don't need to start with filling the empty buildings, we need to start supporting the businesses we have," he said.
Gloria O'Rourke, MEDA administrator, touched on that thought as she described an attitude shift the community might consider.
"They need to look at Billings as customers, not competition," she said. "And their own people need to shift, there has to be a loyalty to their own businesses."
That shift also includes making adjustments to the new, older population moving into the area and to the outdated "boom" mentality that came when the mine was expanding quickly.
"Folks need to get realistic about the value of their properties, now that the community's changing," O'Rourke said. "They have to reinvent their businesses and look at new markets."
That could mean delving into the arts, providing more services for senior citizens or even creating a scenic loop to attract people to the town.
"They need to think bigger, more cooperative," she said.
In the meantime, the 65 or so people who attended the resource team's wrap-up Tuesday evening will have to wait until mid-June to see how team members unraveled the unique puzzle of their town.
"A lot of people left last night upbeat and wanting to get going," Mooney said.
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