Fred Hartline, 72, feels an affinity for what he describes as Butte’s “informal, do-it-yourself, spunky atmosphere and denizens.” He celebrates the city’s comparatively low housing costs and the surrounding region’s scenic beauty and its extraordinary opportunities for outdoors recreation.
He appreciates the intellectual stimulation offered by Montana Tech, where his wife, Beverly, is vice chancellor for research and dean of graduate studies and where he helps out with the university’s public lecture series.
Hartline said these are among other attributes that make Butte a fine place to be retired.
“If New York City or the Florida Keys were my idea of ‘the place to be,’ it’s pretty unlikely I’d be really happy in Butte,” he said.
He said the Big Apple and Florida would rank at the bottom of his list of preferred places to retire, “along with just about all other major urban centers and snowbird enclaves.”
Hartline, a Maryland native and former college educator, is not alone in his appreciation for Butte and the region among people who are retired or about to be.
Retirees contribute to the economy in southwest Montana in ways both tangible and intangible. Many loyally support local businesses, including those that cater to older adults. They pay taxes. Many, like Hartline, contribute their time, expertise and perspiration to community organizations — efforts that enrich the region in ways that defy assigning a dollar value.
Patrick Barkey, director of the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, dropped a surprising figure Thursday.
They bring life experience and the potential to be mentors for young adults just getting started in business, education or other pursuits.
But an aging population in southwest Montana also presents economic challenges, including the potential to slow population and economic growth, to decrease school enrollment and associated funding and employment, to decrease consumer spending and to increase demand for medical care often reimbursed by Medicare, which typically pays less than commercial health insurance.
“For the local areas including Silver Bow County, the impact of an aging population is real and will continue as baby boomers’ impacts are felt,” said John Kasperick, an economist with NorthWestern Energy who tracks the regional economy.
“All else equal, this means the areas will continue to see declining economic activity,” he said.
Kasperick noted that in Butte-Silver Bow County the number of people employed in November 2017 was less than the number employed 10 years earlier. The labor force has similarly declined during that period, he said.
“In order to reverse this trend at the local level, new jobs need to be attracted to the area,” Kasperick said. “A younger workforce brings with it children who support schools, spending and overall increased economic activity.”
An aging population
Census data show that the population in southwest Montana tends to be older than the statewide average. Estimates show Butte-Silver Bow County with a total population as of 2016 at 34,553 and suggest that about 18.2 percent of that population is 65 years old or older. Members of the baby boom generation, many of whom are retired or soon to be retired, make up about 26.5 percent of the total population.
By comparison, census estimates from 2016 suggest that about 17.7 percent of Montana’s population and about 15.2 percent of the nation’s population is 65 years old or older.
Many in this demographic group in southwest Montana are retired. Some are retired with money to spend. Some live on tight budgets restrained by fixed incomes.
Some people opted to retire in southwest Montana because other choices were limited. Some would not consider retiring anywhere else.
And there are those who, like Hartline, have defied the snowbird’s typical migratory pattern and chosen to retire to southwest Montana even without roots here because they love the outdoors or because the cost of housing remains affordable — especially when compared to Bozeman and Missoula — or because of some combination.
Hartline said he and Beverly try to support area businesses.
“I purchase stuff locally, if I can find it, even if it costs a bit more,” he said.
He volunteers at the Science Mine, a hands-on science discovery center in Uptown Butte, and donates his time for community events that include the Montana Folk Festival and Wulfman’s CDT-14K trail race.
Retiree Len Janson, 62, has agreed to spearhead the 2018 “Butte 100,” an annual mountain bike race that takes place along the Continental Divide just outside of Butte.
Janson said he hopes the event will present Butte in a positive light and encourage people to return for a visit, to start a business or retire.
Janson and his wife, Lynn, 61, grew up in Butte. They knew each other in high school but didn’t date until both were students at Montana Tech, where Len got a degree in petroleum engineering in 1977. The couple married and moved to Borger, Texas, where Len worked for Phillips 66.
During the next 35 years the couple lived in Texas, in Stavanger, Norway, in Oklahoma, Kansas and Alaska.
When Len retired in Alaska in May 2012, he told Lynn his employer would pay to move them anywhere in the world. He asked where she might want to settle.
Lynn responded immediately, saying, “Butte.”
Len said he wasn’t sure she’d heard him right and emphasized again that they could move anywhere, from New England to New Zealand.
Lynn told him she’d followed him around for 35 years during his career relocations and it was time to go home. The pull was family, she said.
Len Janson said many retirees focus on four key community attributes: the availability of good and affordable housing; medical care; entertainment; and, shopping.
“Butte has some pluses and minuses in all of those,” he said.
He said that when the couple first looked for a house in Butte they had trouble finding something smallish that didn’t require extensive renovation or something newer that wasn’t too large. Lynn said the couple already had experienced gutting and renovating two homes and didn’t want to endure that again.
“I just wanted to turn the key and move in,” she said.
Ultimately, the Jansons bought a house on Kelsey Lane. It was larger than they’d first sought but met other criteria.
Two years ago, life circumstances forced the couple to plumb the region’s health care pros and cons. Len was diagnosed with melanoma in January 2016.
“I spent all of 2016 fighting cancer,” he said. “All of that was either in Spokane or Missoula.”
An avid cyclist, Len logged about 8,500 miles in 2015, the year that included a 3,840-mile ride from Astoria, Oregon, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 2016, he cycled only about 300 miles.
He described Butte’s medical care as adequate for retirees but said his specialized care required travel elsewhere. Lynn said it can be difficult to book an appointment with a general practitioner.
St. James Healthcare in Butte estimates that about 45 percent of its patients are 65 years old or older. Jay Doyle, president of St. James Healthcare, said the hospital is “pleased that we can provide the services these patients need close to home.”
On the other hand, he said, most of these patients are on Medicare and Medicare pays a much lower portion of the hospital bill than commercial insurance.
“That leaves a balance that either the patient must pay or we must write off,” Doyle said.
He said the hospital does not have a clear sense of whether retirees are moving into the region and noted that Butte-Silver Bow has experienced minimal population growth during the past several years.
Meg Hickey, a spokeswoman for the Community Hospital of Anaconda, said a 2013 Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Community Needs Assessment estimated that by 2030 about 25 percent of the county population would be 65 years old or older. That same assessment estimated that about 30 percent of the city-county’s population falls within the baby boom generation.
Hickey said aging of the baby boomers presents unique challenges. This population will require more medical care and more specialty care, she said, increasing the odds that patients will have more than one disease at a time and increasing rates of re-admission. Related increases in demands for time with primary care providers and for timely appointments also present challenges, she said.
“This can cause demand of services to exceed the supply of medical providers, especially within the healthcare professional shortage areas like Anaconda-Deer Lodge County,” Hickey said.
Nevertheless, she said, the population of people 65 or older can “be a lifeline to many Critical Access Hospitals,” a designation that includes the Community Hospital of Anaconda and is intended to reduce the financial vulnerability of rural hospitals that meet certain criteria, including having 25 or fewer acute care inpatient beds and comparatively limited hospital stays.
The Critical Access Hospital program provides for cost-based reimbursement from Medicare.
Still, she said, “Lack of profit on these visits can make it difficult for cost-reimbursed hospitals to grow and reinvest.”
Yet the Community Hospital of Anaconda has been able to recruit specialists to offer care unavailable at many Critical Access Hospitals, Hickey said.
“These specialist offerings have expanded our service area to outside Anaconda-Deer Lodge County,” transforming the hospital into more of a regional medical facility, she said.
Patients who travel from southwest Montana for treatment at the Anaconda-based hospital often patronize businesses in the community, Hickey said, boosting the local economy.
The Community Hospital of Anaconda employs more than 425 people and its annual payroll exceeds $33 million, she said.
St. James Healthcare is an acute care hospital licensed for 98 beds. St. James has 637 employees and its total employee compensation in 2017, including payroll and benefits, was $51.2 million, the hospital reported.
Both hospitals face challenges because the retirement of the baby boom generation also affects hospital employment. Among other responses, the hospitals have boosted recruitment efforts by providing clinical rotations for students pursuing medical and health care degrees.
Doyle said St. James also works with universities to provide job shadowing or intern opportunities for non-clinical students majoring in areas such as health informatics, computer science, business, marketing and communications.
Students in Montana Tech’s well-regarded bachelor's of science degree nursing program are among those participating in clinical rotations at St. James Healthcare and the Community Hospital of Anaconda.
"They are an asset to our facility, providing a unique perspective on the ever-changing health care environment," Hickey said.
And Len Janson is among the legions of Montana Tech’s graduates who feel fierce loyalty for the school that helped launch their careers. He said he references his alma mater when reminding the couple’s two children, a son and a daughter, of their blessings.
“Our kids have grown up with the understanding that there are two reasons for everything we have,” he said. “The first is the way their mother and I were raised and the second is Montana Tech.”
Mike Duffy, 69, and three brothers grew up in Butte, where their father was a mechanical supervisor for the Anaconda Co.
Mike graduated in 1967 from Butte Central High School. He met his wife, Jane, now 73, in Washington D.C. in 1969 when both were involved in a play production — Mike as an actor and Jane as a set builder. They married in 1971, the same year Mike graduated from Catholic University of America with a bachelor’s degree in English.
For a time, he taught high school English and attended law school at night at George Washington University. Jane, a native of New Jersey, worked in administration for the National Security Agency until the birth of the couple’s second child.
After Mike graduated from law school in 1976, he went to work, “purely by chance,” as a government lawyer focused on mine safety. He moved in and out of government and the private sector, always involved in mine safety, until President George W. Bush appointed him in 2002 to head the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. He decided to retire, at age 63, when his term ended in 2012.
Mike’s brother, Joe Duffy, had died in 2006, in Great Falls. After Mike and Jane attended the funeral they decided to travel to Butte. As it happened, news broke during their visit that Ray Ueland and his brother Ron had purchased the historic Metals Bank building in Uptown Butte.
“I called Ron and he said he’d give me a tour,” Mike said. “It needed a lot of work.”
The couple had previously considered buying a house in Butte to spend part of each year, intending to also occupy their apartment in Washington D.C. Ultimately, they decided it made more sense to buy living quarters in the Metals Bank building. And since 2013 the Duffys have lived in a condominium of about 2,100 square feet that they created on the fifth floor.
Jane had visited Butte through the years because of her marriage to a native son.
“I was always impressed with Butte,” she said. “Moving here was not a problem for me.”
Mike observed, “She fit right in. She has a wide range of friends.”
Jane volunteers at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, just a few blocks from home. Mike works occasionally as a substitute teacher at Butte Central High School.
The Duffys described few complaints about life as retirees in southwest Montana.
“The winters haven’t been as bad as we thought,” Jane said. “There are things I miss, but not enough to move.”
Mike said he would like to see a repertory movie theater that screens films not featured among the mainstream movies shown at the theater at the Butte Plaza Mall. And he said he would like to see a number of neglected historic buildings in Uptown Butte receive attention from absentee landlords who he said seem content to let them languish and deteriorate.
“It’s time for them to fish or cut bait,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Jansons said Butte’s entertainment offerings are generally good but that it’s sometimes challenging to know what’s happening.
He said Butte’s retail footprint is small but emphasized they try to support local businesses.
“If you don’t shop local, you don’t have local shops,” Len said.
The Hartlines, who moved to Butte in 2012 from Delaware, try to patronize regional businesses but sometimes must travel or turn to the internet for specialized purchases.
“Bev and I are committed to environmental sustainability — we just bought a Chevy Volt from Ressler Motors in Bozeman,” Fred Hartline said.
The couple has embraced ultralight backpacking gear, equipment they’ve had to order online.
The Duffys said they support local businesses whenever they can. They, like many people in the region, would welcome a big-box home improvement retailer like Home Depot or Lowe’s and Jane would appreciate proximity to a TJ Maxx store.
‘Old enough to know better’
Contemplating the pros and cons of Butte and other small communities in southwest Montana, Hartline mused about how he believes communities play a role in supporting lives well-lived.
“In my experience, people often have very different needs and preferences, so they are generally happier and more fulfilled if they can find activities, services and opportunities that fit their basic needs and encourage them to discover unanticipated ways to enrich their lives or grow new interests and abilities,” he said.
Basic needs include such things as “good health, good friends, decent housing, hope, dreams and freedom from stress,” Hartline said.
Cities and towns with a rich array of opportunities and mentors are typically best situated to foster such enrichment, he said, whether for children, young adults or retirees.
“Small communities often have less diversity in choices, fewer enriching activities and fewer inspiring mentors or facilitators,” Hartline said.
“For me, the Science Mine and the folks at Montana Tech augment the goings-on within the larger Butte community to enrich my own life and keep me engaged with new ‘life adventures,’” he said.
Zena Beth McGlashan, 78, moved back to Butte in 1990 after the death of her husband, photographer and educator Harley Straus. She later married musician Mike Gamble, now 76.
McGlashan, a journalist, author and former educator renowned for a quick wit, said she isn’t fond of the label “retiree” because it conjures stereotypical images.
“It makes us sound so old,” she said. “How about, ‘People who are old enough to know better’?”
As for the economic impact of retirees, McGlashan playfully referenced Butte’s Red Hat Society, a group that celebrates for women a non-traditional approach to aging.
“When the Red Hats go out to dinner, it makes a difference for the restaurant,” she said.
McGlashan said dryly that Butte is a good place to retire if you like Butte.
The community’s congenial spirit is one of its most compelling attributes, she said.
“Norlene Holt of ‘The Butte Weekly’ once said Butte is the friendliest town in America. And I think she was right,” McGlashan said.
Len Janson offered a similar observation.
“Butte people are very generous. They’re generous with their time, with their food, with their hearts.”
Janson believes it makes sense for economic development officials to recruit retirees with disposable incomes, especially as retiring baby boomers swell the ranks of this demographic.
“There is a huge number of retirees out there and some of them have large amounts of disposable income,” he said.
Hartline expressed mixed feelings about such recruitment.
“There’s value to be gained from having new, still-somewhat-active community members from diverse backgrounds bringing in money, ideas and special skills acquired over a lifetime,” he said. “But there are costs as well, such as for infrastructure needs or demands, as well as upward pressures on cost-of-living.”
Joe Willauer, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corp., addressed the recruitment question.
“At this point we don't have an initiative to actively recruit snowbirds or retirees, but it is certainly a segment of the economy that we are aware of,” he said.
“Butte and our entire state faces a challenge with an aging population and workforce, and we are focused on finding the employees to fill positions as businesses are handed down and employees are retiring," Willauer said. "We have a very successful young professionals group that works towards this goal and ensuring that Butte has a bright future workforce ready to get things done as new opportunities arise.”
The Duffys see potential benefits in recruiting retirees but also recognize the need to bring in young people to boost and diversify the regional economy and start and staff the businesses suited to serve an aging population.
“You’re going to need a lot of services for the elderly demographic and will need young people to provide them,” Mike said.
And that, it seems, is happening.
Sheena Hensley, 33, launched Senior Solutions Inc. in Butte in 2014. The business, which provides in-home personal care for aging and disabled clients, started with 20 employees and now has a staff of nearly 50, with about 80 percent being full-time.
Hensley said market research she conducted before opening Senior Solutions showed that an aging population in southwest Montana could provide clients.
She plans to soon open a hospice program.
Hensley said she envisions expanding her business into other communities in southwest Montana with aging populations, including Anaconda-Deer Lodge County, Deer Lodge and Dillon.
“It does increase our odds of success when we have a larger pool of aging patients,” she said.
In 2015, Aaron Hildreth, 33, and his wife, Janelle, 29, opened BeeHive Homes, an assisted-living franchise, on Elm Street in Butte.
Bonnie Hawke, a managing broker for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Montana Properties, said many retirees who return to Butte or southwest Montana from around the country have deep roots in the region.
“There's something special about Butte that draws people back home when they are ready to retire,” Hawke said.
“We have seen clients coming back to Butte to retire, simply because of the laid-back lifestyle that they have missed while they were away,” she said.
“Clients who want to volunteer and do something good for our community or just want to ‘come home’ really are coming home. Fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking, exploring and the friendly people is what they have missed about Butte the most,” she said.
She said Berkshire Hathaway agents also field inquiries from people who want to spend summers in Butte and colder months somewhere warmer.
“Our real estate market is still more affordable than places like Bozeman and Missoula, so it is less expensive for these people to purchase a second home in Butte,” Hawke said.
She said retirees considering a move to Butte typically inquire about the hospital and medical community, community activities and the airport.
Young energy building
Businesses and residents alike in southwest Montana sometimes complain about the limited commercial air service for the Bert Mooney Airport in Butte, a reality that often makes it cheaper though less convenient to fly in and out of other airports.
A new airport terminal at Bert Mooney Airport is expected to open this month. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration has redesigned instrument approaches to the airfield and reduced minimum visibility to a half-mile from the previous 3-mile standard. The lesser weather minimum is expected to reduce canceled or delayed flights during snow and fog.
These and other changes at the airport have boosted hopes that at least another commercial airline will elect to provide service to and from Butte, a development that would please retirees with enough money to travel.
Hartline is leaning toward optimism.
“I really am hopeful that revising the ceiling standards will make air transport more workable here,” he said. “It’s no fun getting stuck, on my dime, in Salt Lake City by local weather conditions in Butte. I’m also hopeful that Butte will snag at least an additional flight in and out during the day. Could be pie-in-the sky, but occasionally dreams do come true.”
The Jansons, who live close to the airport, said they have been pleasantly surprised that once in a while the fares in and out of Butte compared favorably to airports in Bozeman and Missoula.
“Even with the one carrier, you can still get in and out,” Lynn said.
Demographic projections suggest that the populations of both Montana and Butte-Silver Bow County “will reach a ‘super-aged’ population base over the next decade,” Kasperick said. The “super-aged” category refers to populations where more than 21 percent of residents are 65 years old or older.
And that prospect has sobering implications.
Yet Len Janson believes that young people with fresh ideas and spirit and the spunk that both he and Fred Hartline feel is a Butte hallmark bode well for the region’s future.
“There is some young energy in Butte that is building,” Janson said. “Butte is going to be fine.”