Residents of Ramsay don't have big numbers or big bucks, certainly not the kind of money that an Oklahoma corporation with 410 convenience stores and truck stops across the U.S. carries around.
But folks from this 40-household community 7 miles west of Butte are looking for every way possible to stop Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores from putting a giant, sprawling truck stop off of Interstate 90 at their doorstep.
They've even pooled their money and hired a Helena law firm to help them fight it, but even their attorney isn't sure he or they can derail Love's plans.
"We're just gathering information now, and I'm not sure what to expect," David "Kim" Wilson, an attorney with the law firm of Morrison, Sherwood, Wilson & Deola, said this week.
"Obviously they are concerned a great deal about having this large commercial truck stop right in close proximity to their community and the impact that could have."
Some Ramsay residents think they're not only fighting Love's, they're fighting Butte-Silver Bow County, too. They believe some top county officials have worked behind the scenes to make the Love's project happen.
"We have been portrayed as rude, inconsiderate and mean," Michelle O'Bill Fisher wrote in a recent letter to The Montana Standard on behalf of her and several other Ramsay residents.
"We are only asking why the secrecy, what is the need, why in our front yards, and why are you shoving this down our throats?"
Dave Palmer, who represented Ramsay as a commissioner before taking over as the county's chief executive in January, says county officials have only answered inquiries from Love's, just as they do for any business showing interest in Butte-Silver Bow.
He understands why Ramsay residents are angry but says Butte-Silver Bow doesn't have a dog in this fight.
"They are upset about this and think the county is behind this whole thing and we have a magic wand to stop this," Palmer said. "They have to put themselves in Love's shoes. If they were trying to do something, they would want to be treated fairly.
"That is all Butte-Silver Bow is trying to do — treat everybody fairly and follow the rules."
LOOKING THROUGH LOVE'S LENS
Love's started in Oklahoma City in 1964 and knows the convenience store and truck stop business, having grown to 410 locations across the country.
Many of its newer stores and truck stops include franchise fast-food restaurants and sell truck tires and provide tire service. It started adding hotels at some of its locations in 2015.
Steve Walters, a real estate project manager for Love's, detailed the company's plans at a public meeting in the Ramsay School in January. Those plans included a 9,000-square-foot store with space for two food franchises and 137 parking spaces for semis.
But a major detail has changed since then.
Love's initially wanted to build on a 15- to 18-acre parcel along Palmer Street, the town's most easterly street. That spot would have required a zoning variance from the county through a process that takes public opinion into account.
Love's has since shifted the location to privately owned land 500 to 800 feet further east, where a zoning variance is not needed. Walters told the Standard last month the new location also is farther away from houses so residents would be less impacted by light and noise pollution.
The truck stop would bring 60 to 80 jobs to the area and $15,000 in property taxes for the Ramsay School in its first year, Walters said. And he said Love's might be willing to cover $75,000 in repairs to the town's elevated water supply tank, which was damaged by a frozen pipe this winter.
During a meeting this week before the Ramsay Water and Sewer District Board, Walters said Love's also would pay for an engineer to determine water flow and whether the truck stop could hook into the community's water system. It would have its own septic system for sewer service, he said.
"If improvements are needed, we will pay for improvements," Walters told the five-member board as about a dozen residents listened inside the tiny Ramsay School cafeteria. "We want to be good corporate partners. We want to make the best of a bad situation."
BUT READY OR NOT…
But even though Walters acknowledged that residents had a "negative opinion" of the project, he suggested it would happen regardless. If everything panned out, he said, they could break ground in June.
With an engineer at his right and an attorney for Love's on his left, Walters told the board they had reviewed the water district's own rules, including those dictated by a federal loan.
"If you have an economically feasible way to give us water, you have to give us water," he said.
Board President Jim Hunt told Walters that members would review the water request and "try to get back to you as soon as possible" without specifying a timeline.
The board has hired Butte-based Water & Environmental Technologies to help determine whether its system can meet Love's water demands and how residential flow might be affected.
After Walters and the others with Love's left the meeting, W.E.T. President Dave Erickson said the company's hopes of starting construction this year were probably unrealistic.
But he also told the board and residents about his own personal take from phone conversations he had with Walters.
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"I do believe him when he says 'we are coming one way or the other,'" Erickson said.
Residents aren't giving up their fight and say Love's still has hoops to jump through.
It hasn't been determined whether the local water system can handle the truck stop's demands, for example. And Palmer and others say Love's likely will need an OK from the Montana Department of Transportation.
The interstate off-ramps to Ramsay and an overpass might not accommodate heavy truck traffic, they say, and if big changes are needed, Love's should have to pay for them.
Butte-Silver Bow Commissioner Dan Callahan, whose district includes Ramsay, said the company faces other hurdles.
It knows how much money it can make with the truck stop, he said, and will weigh that against up-front costs.
"There is a tipping point, and depending on how this is added up, Love's will make the decision on whether the price is worth coming," he said.
Some residents believe county officials have been working behind the scenes to push the project along. Through their attorney, the residents have asked for records of all correspondence about the matter between county officials and Love's.
"They call this economic development," O'Bill Fisher said. "These are not high-paying jobs. These are minimum-wage jobs. It's another truck stop that will be taking away from (Butte-based) Town Pump. They shouldn't be working with them."
Resident Mike Flanick, who joined Ramsay resident Jim Ayres in meeting with the Helena attorney recently, said the "whole point of government is to protect the citizens."
Claims the county doesn't have a dog in the fight are "not the impression we're getting," he said.
Palmer said he first heard about the proposal after he won the Nov. 8 election, when the person he defeated — incumbent chief executive Matt Vincent — mentioned it in passing. Palmer said he didn't know it was Love's — or any other details — until just before Walters detailed plans publicly in January.
But he said even before then, he doesn't believe county officials were pushing the project or acting in secrecy.
"They haven't been working for them; they have been answering questions that came up as far as zoning and what is out there and what would have to be done with the parcels," Palmer said.
He also said the county has no say on whether Butte needs another truck stop, and he had assured Town Pump officials that Butte-Silver Bow was not pushing the proposal or offering public incentives.
"If Love's thinks they can make a go of it, that is a business decision for them to make," Palmer said. "Butte-Silver Bow is not in the business of saying, 'We have four pizza places, no more — we are not going to let anymore in.'"
In 2015, Love's abandoned plans of locating a truck stop off of Interstate 90 by Livingston, 26 miles east of Bozeman. Many residents and businesses were opposed to it, but in that case, city officials had a direct say. Love's needed the city to approve an annexation request for the site, but commissioners voted it down.
In this case, Palmer said, the county does not have a say.
For now, the water district board plans to ask Love's if it will guarantee payment for the water tank repairs whether the truck stop goes forward or not. If they don't get the money, residents would foot the bill themselves, and that could increase their monthly water and sewer rates by $20.
"If they are going to come here no matter what, we have to reap something from this whole crappy mess," board member Gary Robinson told fellow residents.
But he and others are torn. At the meeting, they wondered out loud if it was principled to seek Love's money for the repairs while fighting the project at the same time.
Wilson, the Helena attorney, said residents can still have a voice in any future decision-making moves by government officials, including those by state environmental regulators.
"It's hard to say what they could do, but they should take advantage of any opportunity for public involvement," Wilson said. "My firm has been involved in this, and I know where those points of public involvement may be."
Ayres said if Love's does come to Ramsay, he and other residents want assurances it will make and pay for any improvements necessary, including any work needed on the off-ramps and overpass.
He also says he can see both sides of the proposed truck stop.
"I guess it's a nice commercial spot," he said. "It makes sense they would want to go there. It also makes sense that we don't want it to go there. It's almost a gated community without the gates."