After 16 years of operating on a 150-acre ranch near Philipsburg, Project Vote Smart plans to leave Montana after this presidential election.
The nonprofit organization — which tracks election data and politicians’ voting records using 20 employees and a cadre of about 40 interns — made the announcement in a summer quarterly newsletter.
In the newsletter, Vote Smart President Richard Kimball cites long driving distances to hospitals and airports, icy road conditions, and office politics heightened by close living quarters as reasons for leaving the Great Divide Ranch.
“The isolation has come with problems,” Kimball wrote, noting the facility is 100 miles from the nearest airport in Missoula.
Forty interns living in a secluded ranch also appeared to have its drawbacks.
“We have all the problems a university does with the experimental, adventurous, hormonal torrent that is the young," Kimball said. "Only in the wilderness such things can become dangerous. Love was requited and denied, marriages were created, fights ensued, drinkers crashed, injuries of every sort, hospital trips too numerous to recall, some to sustain life, and distressingly, three deaths.”
The Montana Standard was unable to reach Kimball by phone.
Walker McKusick, the organization’s Interim National Director, said he hadn't heard about any deaths at the ranch and was unsure about the injuries mentioned in the newsletter but that the organization feels it can recruit more interns during the snowy months and have better access to resources by moving to a larger market.
“We’re really good at getting interns out at the ranch,” said McKusick. “But (we’d like) to maintain that in the fall and winter.”
When asked whether living in a remote location led to tension among staff and interns — as the newsletter seemed to indicate — he said that “in any environment there’s going to be issues” and that “the isolation makes things tough.”
All office politics aside, what remains certain is Project Vote Smart is making moves toward leaving the state.
McKusick said the company put the 150-acre ranch at 1 Common Ground for sale more than a year ago.
Real-estate listings describe the property as “an idyllic Montana dream” with two bunkhouses, three guest cabins, and a main research facility. The asking price is $4.1 million.
But this isn’t the first time the ranch has hit the real-estate market.
After laying off six employees and accepting the resignation of another, Vote Smart put the property up for sale in 2014.
Adelaide Elm — a founding member of the organization’s executive board and also Kimball’s wife — didn’t give a specific reason for the layoffs in an interview with The Missoulian in 2014 but said that the organization was working with a $1.2 million budget the previous year.
“We are really cutting it down,” said Elm. “We are cutting back on horses, and we put in a wood boiler to replace the propane. We are economizing where we can.”
McKusick, meanwhile, told The Montana Standard that Vote Smart is doing “very well” financially and that the organization’s tax returns are available on its website.
According to those returns, Vote Smart had an annual revenue of $1.8 million in 2014, up from the previous year’s $1.3 million. Since 2008 the organization’s revenue has fluctuated between $1.8 and $1 million, showing its second-highest-earning year in 2009 with $1.7 million.
Vote Smart, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is funded primarily through grants and donations.
“It’s from individual citizens giving what they can to serve our mission,” said McKusick, adding that page views and donations are up from the previous year, mainly due to interest in the current presidential election. “This election cycle certainly helps out a lot.”
McKusick said Vote Smart will not relocate until after the 2016 presidential election but could not provide a specific time for the move.
“A lot of it depends on a buyer showing up,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff we just don’t know.”
McKusick said he doesn’t anticipate layoffs and that all employees will receive offers to accompany the organization in the move.
While the future for Vote Smart may seem a bit fuzzy, what’s certain is that the organization’s presence in Philipsburg — a town of about 850 — will be missed.
About 14 Vote Smart employees live in Philipsburg, and Melanie Magnotto, an assistant manager for the town’s Boheme Coffee Shop and former Vote Smart employee, said those staff members rent apartments and patronize businesses in the community.
“It will hurt when Vote Smart leaves for sure,” said Magnotto. “They all come downtown and eat at the restaurants here and come to the coffee shop.”
A few of them, she said, even settle down in Philipsburg and Missoula.
Reed Speegle is one former Vote Smart employee who decided to stay in town.
Speegle, who’s now the Philipsburg town clerk and treasurer, said he moved from his hometown in Chicago to work at the Great Divide Ranch because he was getting tired of city life.
“It was a pretty big change,” said Speegle, noting that people from all over the country come to work at the ranch. “But I like the change of pace.”