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Fading Town in Montana Is Losing Business, Population--and Hope

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Kimberly Grocholski did the research before she moved to this small eastern Montana town. “But that can’t prepare you for what you find when you get here,” she said.

Grocholski, who left Minnesota’s Twin Cities last summer for Jordan and a teaching job, found what many consider a fading town: few jobs for those who don’t teach or ranch, few young people, few prospects.

City Councilman Robert Wilson, like Grocholski, worries what the future holds for the area.

“This is rock bottom,” he said.

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Nearly all of Montana’s eastern counties lost population during the 1990s, but none greater than Garfield County, where about one in five residents left. The remaining 1,279 people are scattered over rugged farm- and ranchland nearly the size of Connecticut.

The census counted 364 people in Jordan, the Garfield County seat that became infamous five years ago as home to the antigovernment Montana Freemen. That is about 130 fewer people than in 1990.

Services in Jordan are basic: two gas stations, a grocery, a hardware store, a cafe and a bank, among a few others. The dry goods store on Main Street is closing. Two bars serve as hangouts at which cowboy hat- and cap-wearing patrons swap stories and discuss weather and current events, leaving their pickup trucks parked in the otherwise desolate street until the late-night hours.

People here love their God, their families and their independence. This life--isolated and quiet--is one they have chosen and one they want to keep. Preserving that, yet still prospering economically, has proven difficult, especially in a town where many still prefer the simple life.

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Some want to exploit the area’s greatest assets--agriculture, fishing and hunting--by building up businesses around them. Others contend the population loss is just another rough patch to get over.

Most blame problems on a sour farm economy. Agriculture is the lifeblood of Garfield County and the countless little towns of eastern Montana.

“People just think it will be all right. And it will, for a few years,” said Tom Spillum, a councilman who owns the homey Garfield Hotel & Motel. “But we can’t keep going on the way we’re going on.”

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The oft-repeated joke is: Jordan isn’t the middle of nowhere, but it’s close.

Teenagers drive nearly 170 miles, round trip, for a $3 matinee at the Montana Theatre in Miles City. Weekly shopping trips to Billings, about 175 miles away, are routine.

Many parents encourage their children to leave--for college, for jobs, for more opportunities.

“Around here . . . you have to leave,” said Becky Stanton, 17. “Unless you want to work at the grocery store ‘til the end of time.”

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Farms and ranches that once supported two or three families now, in many cases, barely keep one.

Billings, the regional medical and shopping center, is siphoning away some eastern Montana rural dwellers, agricultural economist Myles Watts said. The city offers jobs, universities and services to an aging rural population that towns like Jordan can’t fully provide.

“Billings has become a large enough area now, it’s almost an economy unto itself,” Watts said. “As it gets bigger, it becomes more of a magnet.”

Miles City and Sidney have attracted some business and “seem to be doing reasonably well,” Watts said.

He said tough times in the energy industry, particularly in oil, hit eastern Montana hard. The agriculture economy hasn’t helped the situation, he said.

“It’s hard to put the brakes on the skid,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it would be difficult.”

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City and county budgets are tight, and residents complain of higher tax bills. Leaders would love to improve the look of downtown or give tax breaks to attract new businesses, but such ideas are tough when the city really doesn’t even have enough money to fix its aging water and sewer lines and the county can barely afford road maintenance.

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“It worries us, very much so,” said Brent McRae, a county commissioner and rancher.

Wilson believes a new road with sidewalks is important to Jordan’s vitality, but previous grant applications have been denied. Many city streets are dirt and turn greasy after a rainstorm.

The city and county have begun working with a development company to pursue grants and economic opportunities. They also have formed a joint board to explore options.

Nearby Fort Peck Lake is a positive for the area, Wilson said. Traffic through town during the summer is fairly steady, with boaters accessing the lake by an often-narrow road just beyond town.

Wilson sees the potential for a business that fixes recreational vehicles, a full-time bait shop or lodging closer to the lake. McRae sees potential in marketing naturally grown beef or grain products, and using the Internet as a tool.

But it comes down to money and a new way of thinking, officials say, neither of which have come easily.

“Here we are, a dying community, really,” Spillum said. “Our kids have no reason to come back.”

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The schools still bring the community together, though. The town staged a parade for the Mustangs’ volleyball team when it qualified for the state tournament.

Twenty-one students are scheduled to graduate in May. Total high school enrollment is 76, and projected to dwindle to 51 students by 2008. Already, some elementary classes are combined. Eight rural, one-room schools remain in the county for kindergarten through eighth grade.

“It comes down to whether we can afford to keep them open,” Spillum said. “They’re our No. 1 concern, all right. Unless we figure out how to draw people in. . . . " His voice trails off.

“Social structures change pretty dramatically if it comes to the point there are no local schools,” Watts said. “There would be no social focal point.”

Some students have long trips in to school. When it rains or snows, roads leading from isolated ranches can become treacherous.

Mark and Stacy Rosenbaum sold their ranch in Garfield County last year and moved near Casper, Wyo. They liked the land and their neighbors, but “you couldn’t make a living there,” Mark Rosenbaum said.

Grocholski, the social studies teacher, said she isn’t sure how long she’ll stay in Jordan. She wanted to have a new experience, but this isn’t quite what she had expected.

“I wasn’t prepared for coming to an area with no peer group,” said Grocholski, 24. “If I didn’t have my boyfriend with me, I don’t know what I’d do.”


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