2018 Year in Review: renewal and restoration ‘trump’ politics in Central Montana

By: 
CHARLIE DENISON and DEB HILL
Friday, December 28, 2018

 

Rebirth and renewal might be the motto for 2018 in Lewistown. A number of highly visible construction and renovation projects made headlines this past year, leading to an improved feeling of optimism about the future of commerce in this rural community.

Following several years in which the downtown business corridor seemed to struggle, in 2018 large Main Street projects (and a few off-Main Street projects) set a different tone. 

New construction or major renovation for new businesses this year included ground breaking at Creekside Marketplace and Pavilion, Big Spring Brewing and Central Feed Grilling Company, Power Mercantile (Reids Department Store) and the Calvert Hotel, as well as numerous smaller businesses, including Burger King. 

Some of the construction activity was slowed by winter weather in what became one of the longest, snowiest winters in recent history. Snow piled up from October and didn’t melt off until May, which played havoc with calving in February but left pastures looking green well past July this year.

Elections absorbed a lot of local energy in 2018, with a Primary election in June and the General Election in November. By the time votes were tallied, many expressed a desire to avoid campaign ads for quite some time. Given that 2020 is a presidential election year, the break from campaigning is likely to be a short one.

This past year seemed to signal career change to many in Central Montana. A few new faces joined the list of movers and shakers in 2018, along with many well-known individuals gaining new job titles. Included in the lengthy list of those finding fresh niches this past year are Youth Mentoring Program Director Staci Auck (formerly Council on Aging director); Fergus County Finance Director Neal Tucek; Fergus County Facilities Director Tracey Haugen; Lewistown City Planner Cathy Barta (formerly Fergus County DES coordinator); Fergus County DES Coordinator Ben Phillips; Council on Aging Director Dale Pfau (formerly owner of Don’s Store); Calvert Hotel General Manager KellyAnne Terry (formerly Lewistown Public Library Director); Lewistown Public Library Director Dani Buehler; Fergus High School Principal Tim Majerus (formerly Lewistown Junior High School principal); Head Start Director Cherie Errecart; Lewistown Fire Chief Joe Ward; and Youth Probation Chief Starr Brown.

These stories and others topped the headlines in 2018. Here are some of the more impactful news items that made the front pages over the past 12 months.

 

Snowmageddon?

Drifted in, drifted out, plowing and more plowing, the heavy snows of 2018 will be remembered for quite some time. Many of the News-Argus stories in January and February had to do with snow: it’s impact on road department budgets, road closures, impact on ranchers and cattle and safety for drivers and delivery services. Drifting and wind, combined with heavy snow, made simply trying to get home a challenge. Rural residents who managed to get into town in the morning had no assurance they’d be able to get back later in the day, due to large berms created by wind-driven snow. Snowplow and tow truck drivers were kept busy through March and into April as heavy snows continued. “It’s a good, old fashioned winter,” quipped former County Commissioner John Jensen.

 

Creekside Marketplace and Pavilion project moves forward

The Creekside Marketplace and Pavilion project continued to move forward this year. In January, two local businesses donated $250,000 to help make the project a reality. Several other large donations came in throughout the year to help the Creekside project reach its goal of $850,000 in donations. They have currently raised more than $750,000. The estimated cost for the project is $1.5 million. The City has already raised more than $700,000 in grants and other fundraising resources as well.

“We are at 96 percent of our total goal,” said City Manager Holly Phelps, “and we’ve only been at it since mid-November of 2017.”

 

Big Spring Brewing opens

In May, renovations were completed and the old Central Feed building on East Main Street officially became Big Spring Brewing/Central Feed Grilling Co. Jeff Southworth and sister Julie Walsh own it, Brad McCardle manages the restaurant and Aaron Sullivan brews the beer.

 

Calvert closes, reopens with new owners and new management

In April, Jeff Southworth and Julie Wash bought the Calvert Hotel for $900,000 during an auction at the Fergus County Courthouse. KellyAnne Terry was named the new manager of the hotel, which reopened in June.

 

APR buys downtown building for visitor center

In mid-September the American Prairie Reserve announced it had purchased the 13,000 square foot Power Mercantile building on Main Street, with the intent to build a visitor discovery center. 

“We consider Lewistown one of the main gateways to the reserve,” said Allison Fox, APR CEO. “We chose it to be the location for our discovery center because of all Lewistown has to offer.” 

Despite mostly positive feedback received following the announcement, the organization remains controversial in Central Montana, with a grassroots group of ranchers promoting a “Save the Cowboy; Stop American Prairie Reserve” movement in response to APR’s continued land purchases in central and northcentral Montana.

“We’re losing the community, culture and heritage of this area,” said Winifred-area rancher Erin Slivka, regarding the group’s concerns over losing ranch land to the APR.

 

City chlorination continues throughout the year

In March, Lewistown started treating City water for coliform by using chlorine. Testing to identify the source of the bacteria has taken longer than anticipated, frustrating City residents and inspiring City Manager Holly Phelps to look into other water treatment methods. The City is working with the Department of Environmental Quality on the best alternative to chlorination.

 

Infirmary, Mental Health Nursing Center subject of concerns

Lewistown’s Montana Mental Health Nursing Center made headlines around the state in early June when inspectors gave the facility and programs less than passing grades. The facility opened its doors to news media representatives in mid-June, inviting a discussion with staff and a tour of the facility. Those who attended met a passionate group of nurses and administrators, who blamed the facilities struggles on changing regulations. Following hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fines and the arrival of a consultant to educate staff, the facility seemed on firmer ground. 

Also in June, Montana Department of Corrections Director Reginald Michael announced the closure of the Lewistown Infirmary after less than six years of operation in an effort to streamline the department’s budget. The 23 inmates were to be discharged or moved to other facilities. However, as of Dec. 27, the facility was still operating. Press releases from Department of Corrections point to difficulty finding programs in which to place the remaining inmates.

 

Central Montana Education Center changes hands

Educational Opportunities for Central Montana Director Diane Oldenburg announced in September that the Central Montana Education Center would end its 20-plus year partnership with Montana State University-Northern. EOCM has agreed to move forward with the University of Providence, which will offer services using the CMEC building on Airport Road as a satellite campus. Although Oldenburg resigned as Community Education Program Director in June, she worked with the Port Authority, the Governor’s Office and local representative Dan Bartel to make this possibility a reality. The University of Providence, based out of Great Falls, will provide a nursing school, construction academy and more.

 

Snowy Mountain debates focus on resource management, protection 

The future of the Big Snowy Mountain Wilderness Study Areas prompted much debate this year, including public input meetings at the City and County level, as well as public discussions by Senator Steve Daines. 

Early in the year, both Congressman Greg Gianforte and Daines introduced bills to release 91,000 acres in the Big Snowies from Wilderness Study designation. Their proposals prompted public outcry in opposition from those concerned with opening the area to mining or other extractive industries, public support from those seeking better forest management and more access, and a letter of concern from the Lewistown City Commission regarding the importance of the Madison Aquifer, source of Lewistown’s water. 

The WSAs were enacted in 1977, and many argued it was time to take some action, although respondents at public meetings were not in agreement of what that action was: further, better protection or less protection and more use. Recently both Daines and Gianforte have acknowledged their bills are effectively dead for this congressional session, although both vowed to reintroduce similar legislation in the 116th Congress.

Meanwhile, beginning in early July, campgrounds and day use areas at Crystal Lake in the Snowies were closed due to hazard tree removal operations conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, after learning a large percentage of area tress were rotten at the center and therefore likely to fall. The majority of trees in the group camping and day use areas had to be removed, leading to a long summer for campers bereft of a favorite spot and a vastly different appearance in what used to be a heavily forested area.

 

Midterm election sees large voter turnout

2018 was a big year for local elections, as around 75 percent of registered voters cast their ballots in Fergus County for the November election. In November, Undersheriff Rick Vaughn won a contested race for sheriff/coroner against Deputy Bryon Armour and Kent Sipe narrowly defeated Becky Williams to remain county attorney. Dan Bartel was reelected as House District 29 Representative, defeating Democratic challenger Rachel Stansberry. 

In statewide races, Initiative 185 (increase in tobacco tax to help fund Medicaid services) and Initiative 186 (stricter mining regulations) both failed. Jon Tester was re-elected for a third term in the U.S. Senate, despite four visits from President Donald Trump stumping for Republican challenger Matt Rosendale. Congressman Greg Gianforte was reelected to the House of Representatives, defeating Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams.

 

Looking back at 2018, it was a busy year, and, despite the challenging political climate, a mostly positive year for Central Montana. What will 2019 bring? Watch our next edition for a glance of what the year holds for City and County officials.

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