BUTTE — Butte put on a bright smile and big show for national and international business leaders — and some prominent politicians to boot — during the two-day Montana Economic Summit in September.
The city showed some of its renewed energy and labors to become again a place that wows, that draws in people and businesses and their money.
“People came out of that with a whole new respect for Butte and people were really thumping their chests and saying, ‘Yeah, I live here, I do business here, and you know, this is a damn good place to live and do business,’” said Jim Smitham, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corp.
The challenge is to keep the momentum going for reshaping the city and its Uptown as a bigger draw in Montana and beyond.
After a half-century of declining population or stagnant growth, disinvestment and lingering problems with missing property owners and empty buildings in Uptown — public and private investments and initiatives have picked up and more are in the works.
NorthWestern Energy has committed to build a $23 million headquarters, a private investor is pledging fresh uses for the historic YMCA building, and plans are taking hold for a multilevel parking garage and an expanded taxing district to help grow Uptown.
On a broader scale, the Local Development Corp. — working with Montana Tech and Butte-Silver Bow County – is trying to position the area as one of 15 future innovative-manufacturing hubs that could draw millions of federal dollars and private investments.
Chief Executive Matt Vincent attended a White House summit on the initiative earlier this month hoping to enhance Butte’s chances for becoming one of the hubs.
Meanwhile, developers and others are seriously exploring ways to finance and build a convention center in Uptown they say could not only be a crown jewel for Butte but all of Montana.
“Now is the time for Butte to really embrace all this,” said Peter Sorini, a neurosurgeon who is buying the YMCA building and is among a cadre of people behind the push for a convention center.
Vincent recently flew to Los Angeles to get insight for capitalizing on the recent investments and community efforts to bring new life, more people and more dollars to Uptown and forge stronger ties to Montana Tech.
Vincent joined urban design experts and leaders of seven other western U.S. cities for a two-day brainstorming conference at UCLA on ways to coordinate and expand economic investment in their communities.
Mohamed Sharif, a faculty member with UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design, visited Butte to get insights into Uptown for consideration at the session of the Mayor’s Institute on City Design.
Sharif had been to the eighth-floor of an Uptown building where new residents live, had visited with folks at the Headframe Spirits distillery about their commitment to Butte and talked with officials at Montana Tech.
“I have been here for 24 hours and what I have seen and felt is unlike any other place I have been,” Sharif said. “There is a lot going on. It’s not something that is far off. It’s actually happening.”
Vincent wants to create an urban design “master plan” that maintains the historic fabric of Uptown while weaving in new investments and connections to its retail, residential and cultural offerings and forging closer ties to Montana Tech.
“Now we’re finally seeing some private-sector investment and it’s becoming a public-private partnership with the URA (Urban Revitalization Agency),” Vincent said. “This is another piece that I think we as a local government can bring to the table to help further increase some of those investments.”
PROBLEMS PAST AND PRESENT
The second half of the 20th century was not kind to a city that was once bustled with nearly 70,000 people and was the world’s largest producer of copper ore.
Mining slowed substantially, the population dropped by half before stabilizing in the 1990s, and decisions were made to steer future commercial, retail and residential development in newer, suburban parts of town.
“The decision dealt a hefty blow to historic Uptown,” said a case-study paper Vincent presented at the conference. “Uptown Butte suffered even though some of the more significant structures were restored or stabilized for future development.”
Unemployment in Butte overall is around 5 percent, a level envied by many U.S. cities.
But the city continues to struggle with environmental problems tied to its mining past and the Berkeley Pit remains one of the nation’s largest hazardous cleanup sites and — ironically — one of Butte’s biggest tourist attractions.
There are still lots of vacant buildings and absentee property owners in Uptown that hamper improvement efforts by neighbors, developers and local government officials.
SEIZING THE POSITIVES
But there are positives to point to of late.
Several buildings that were once vacant are now home to combinations of commercial, retail and residential use.
Butte-Silver Bow has a plan for a new Urban Renewal District and associated tax-increment financing district for Uptown that will capture new tax dollars from development and reinvest the money in the area.
The new headquarters planned for NorthWestern Energy is expected to be a key catalyst for the new district, and a new historic-preservation plan for Uptown is in the works.
The Historic Preservation Department is working with engineering students at Montana Tech on developing traffic flow studies and parking alternatives for Uptown. Vincent recently announced intentions to bring angled parking — common in many cities — to Uptown.
Vincent has organized and held two community meetings following the economic summit in September in hopes of keeping the momentum going and getting everyone on the same page.
Smitham, at the second meeting held on Dec. 3, said the meetings were useful and the optimism justified.
“We’re entering a whole new era as far as I’m concerned,” he said.