If you look up when you’re walking around downtown, you can see ghost signs fading against the brick, reminders of a commercial culture long gone. In a past life, you went to the heart of the city to buy hardware, get your truck radiator rebuilt or catch a train to Butte. Imagine that.
Those ghost signs signal a shift from long ago, multiple shifts actually, long before the mall ate shopping downtown and the big boxes ate a version of the mall, before the punk scene spit back at 80’s consumer culture, and generations before the commercial edges of our valley became Everywhere, America. Well, we’ve turned the corner on another major shift, and it’s worth taking stock of what this shift means, how it’s markedly different than anything we’ve lived through before, and how therein lies some hope for the future.
For decades we were a lunch-bucket blue collar town. Four mills ran 24/7, and our neighborhood bars, corner stores and elementary–schools–that–kids–walked-to kept the rhythm of a working town’s beating heart. The rotten-egg air and our copper-green river bore the scars of our livelihoods, like the air and water of so many industrial places.
However, alongside that work-a-day nature, we had an artistic vibrancy unlike any Pennsylvania steel city or Pacific Northwest mill town. Writing, ceramics, poetry, theater, music, sculpture, political criticism, the place thrummed with a palpable, almost electric, creative energy. That creativity, spawned at a low-cost, high-quality, classic liberal arts university that attracted people from all over, fueled a cultural shift in the 90’s.
It wasn’t arts per se, but the raw energy to create that filled space as the mills slowly died, schools consolidated, and neighborhood-scale commercial life faded away. New enterprises emerged from the same wellspring of identity – blue collar creativity, as the pendulum of taste swung from the universal and convenient toward local and high quality. Missoula’s long running cultural engine – vibrant local businesses, unassuming creative intensity and easy access to beautiful public land – became an economic engine. The folks who came for all of that, for all this place was and not for a job, started livelihoods that reflected the same values that brought them here, and led them to stay.
We started making our own coffee, beer, pastry, and all the other things that people who enjoy those tasty consumables also like to do and ingest. The low-cost livability of this place granted the time and space required for new possibility, just as it always had from way, way back. From the days of hardware stores downtown, Missoula was always an easy place to have enough.
In the 90’s and 00’s, our low-budget economics allowed for young people to make this cultural/economic shift happen; to live on little, so they could use their energy to spin dreams into viable realities – cultural, artistic and entrepreneurial. Much of the fruit of that labor exists now in businesses, non-profits and personal careers that seem so well established it’s hard to imagine they were once merely the passions of scrappy young people with no real money. They were. We bounced back from the end of our mill-town era because you could rent a place for not much, get by, and throw your efforts toward your dreams. And when those dreams grew, we all benefited, not just the folks who did the work. We left the 00’s far economically stronger and culturally richer than we went into the 90’s.
Through all of that, two economic arcs remained roughly parallel – wages and house prices. When those lines move in parallel, it means people who work here can afford to live here. Like so many have noted, Covid both shined a light on an existing reality and simultaneously exacerbated it. The parallel rise in wages and housing costs had already begun to fall apart pre-Covid, but when remote work made Missoula a possibility for people from all over the country, the two lines went in different directions.
Essentially, that’s the backdrop to our current shift, and the reality Covid’s light illuminated; inequity has become The Socioeconomic Problem of this historical moment. Turns out, our relaxed, genuine and creative culture, and easy access to beautiful public land, have mass appeal. And now, you too can get a slice of it without having to find a job here (or, better yet, make one), because you can bring your current job with you! People have left the madness of overpopulation on the coasts, trading the bovine feel of mass-transit commuting and paying to park at overused trailheads for biking from the lower Rattlesnake to a coffee shop downtown and hiking in the Swan Valley on the weekend.
Can you blame them? The latest wave of in-migrants is only doing as so many have done before – they came to Missoula because the character of the place rhymes with their own values. However, this is different in that our new folks now often come with far-away jobs in-hand and/or money. Coming with a livelihood already intact or money in-hand is now actually a prerequisite for moving to Missoula, or you can’t come at all. The place just costs too much to move here and then figure it out.
The reality of a national desire to be here, met with wages and wealth from economically stronger places, all set against a lagging housing supply, has driven home prices, and rents, way up, just as they have in all the high quality of life spots across our country. For what it’s worth, we are not alone in struggling with this.
Working solely with the market (supply and demand) cannot fully get us out of this spot in the near future. In terms of supply and demand, this situation requires the impossible: the finite local market must meet an insatiable national demand and right now. Missoula has been found. The logic of supply and demand leaves locals in the dust in two ways: 1.) local wage earners cannot compete with those who bring wages or wealth from other places, and 2.) we quite literally cannot build enough housing fast enough to quickly pull prices down to a level that local wages can support.
That does not mean we should stop doing our best to create housing. Economists may see this moment as a stop on a path to a more reasonable future, as a worker shortage is also driving local wages up. That may be true. However, given the geographic constraints on creating housing, the physical and financial complexity of large-scale subdivisions, the lack of labor, persistent supply chain issues and the wildcard of inflation and its painful cure, high interest rates, we may wait a while, if ever, for the whole thing to steady into a positive 90’s-like equilibrium.
If we leave the situation alone, just let it unfold, we are much more likely to become Telluride with suburbs and a university. The loss in that is massive, and yes, change is the only real constant in the life of a place (remember the ghost signs downtown), but the cultural significance of this moment deserves to be called out. I am writing this as a requiem, an act of remembrance, an accounting of what’s been lost, but also in recognition of a need for new tools for a new time. We shouldn’t just let it unfold.
The folks who came here for the place, brought youthful energy and vision, and got busy turning dreams into realities (with all the concomitant economic risks and rewards); they straight up cannot choose us anymore, as we are. We do not have enough give in our system (think rent and wages) for someone to live on not-so-much, have a side gig, and pour their heart and soul into a new endeavor. You need to come with money. So what, you may say, why should I shed a tear for the 28-year-old wanna-be entrepreneur who now has to choose Traverse City over Missoula? I already got my slice.
Well, young people with dreams manifest powerful creative energy, an electric, contagious economic and cultural force that not only attracts others but enlivens and enriches those around them. This is the vibrancy of action, not merely money. Money alone doesn’t do it, can’t do it. A community doesn’t need to be overwhelmed with young creatives to have this force, but we do need some.
Even for those of us with super traditional jobs or clearly plotted career paths – if our community has the economic time and space for making a dream come real, your life gets richer too, because we all culturally bump up against the works of those who feel utterly compelled to make visions real. Think of other places you’ve been – you can feel this energy, and you can just as clearly feel its absence.
In the recent past, an invisible wall has come up around our valley, around our county. Without wealth or prime-time wages, you can’t come in. If you got in early, good on you for making the right choice, back when no one could have foreseen how crazy it would become. Be grateful though, not self-congratulatory; you couldn’t buy a house here now either.
However, this rant is not merely a Gen X jeremiad for a time gone, but a call to action. We’ve certainly said farewell to the original means to the low barrier entrepreneurship that once defined us – we were a diamond-in-the-rough, undiscovered, cheap place to live. But we don’t have to passively accept exclusivity as a pre-ordained destination. We can design a different future, but that demands a level of social bravery, self-awareness and openness to change we have not had to call on in the modern era.
It’s important to note that the back-in-the-day creative energy I am speaking of happened organically; it wasn’t the direct result of policy (though we did make some wise place-making decisions). Therein lies a ray of hope, and in this way the past deviates radically from the future. Now is the time to attempt to actively design a future of creative possibility.
For Missoula County’s next couple decades to bring with it some of the best of the past – an economics welcoming to those with only dreams and gumption, and built and wild environments that reflect our values, we need both new tools and a new appetite for civic action. A purely organic unfolding of the future tilts us towards a culturally bland and severely economically segregated reality no one says they want.
A broader, better vision demands we realistically address our traditional attitudes around neighborhood control, our ability to welcome change and our comfort with market intervention. We, right now, must embody the creative blue-collar spirit that got us here, in order to make a future of possibility. This time we can choose, let’s do that.