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Anaconda still moving forward

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In the morning of Sept. 29, 1980, 25-year-old Jim Davison went to work at the downtown Anaconda offices of Atlantic Richfield Corp.

It had been Davison's job to figure out how much it would cost to tear out the smelter, and it had been other people's jobs to find out what it would cost to clean up what would be left behind.

But even while he toiled at what would later become a

reality, and one of the darkest days in Anaconda history, he remained optimistic. After all, other people were trying to figure out how much it would cost to improve the smelter and once again make it competitive with similar facilities around the world.

"That morning we were taking bets on what the announcement would be," said Davison, now executive director of the Anaconda Local Development Corp. "I had my money on them putting $200 million into the smelter and making the improvements."

That, of course, was not the winning wager.

The announcement put more than 1,000 smelter employees out of work, and the ripple effect doomed several hundred more jobs throughout the area. Eight years later, jobs were still being lost in the county. But the immediate impact was nearly catastrophic. Approximately 66 percent of Anaconda-Deer Lodge's tax base eroded overnight.

STATE OF FLUX

Connie Ternes-Daniels, the planning director for Anaconda-Deer Lodge, had a two-week-old baby when the smelter closed. Her husband, an electrical engineer for ARCO, lost his job that day and what looked like a stable, middle-class existence in a small Montana town was suddenly in a state of flux.

"It was a very scary time," Ternes-Daniels said. "Things shut down and were dismantled, there was the job hit, then the mass exodus."

Davison remembers that "all of a sudden there was an incredible desperation in the community. You have to remember the national economy was so poor at the time. There was a reaching out, trying to figure out who we were and if we would make it."

Becky Guay, chief executive of Anaconda-Deer Lodge County, said she left the city shortly after the smelter closed and graduated from Montana Tech because there were no opportunities for her in Anaconda.

"I was afraid there wouldn't be an Anaconda to come back to," she said.

IT'S STILL HERE

Now, 30 years later, Anaconda is still here. The city has survived. But Davison admits that the town still does not know exactly what it is or what it will look like in the future.

"I feel we have been successful in some areas," said Davison. "I feel we are now on the cusp."

It took every one of the 10,950 days since the smelter closed to get to that cusp. On the surface, the city has made back much of the losses incurred on that September day three decades ago.

The Montana Department of Labor and Industry's Research and Analysis bureau's latest numbers show there are 4,463 jobs in Anaconda-Deer Lodge, a 62 percent increase since 1988, the county's employment low point. A majority of Anaconda's jobs in 2010 are in the government, healthcare, construction and retail trade sectors, which accounted for a small percentage of the city's economy during the smelter years.

But bringing back jobs was difficult. In fact, just keeping the town operating during the lean years was hard. Planning for the future was something they could not afford to do.

Ternes-Daniels, a county commissioner from 1987 to 1990, saw it firsthand.

"Even then we continued to see a downturn," she said. "We were trying to maintain a city and a county on pretty limited resources. We saw a lot of projects go by the wayside and infrastructure needs were put on hold, too."

Chief Executive Guay said that when she took over the top job, the county was almost bankrupt. The absence of industrial tax revenue had the city operating on fumes for decades, its infrastructure slowly falling apart.

And it wasn't just the ghost of a closed smelter that hovered over the town. Superfund stigma was never far from the minds of developers and residents.

"You wouldn't believe what we have missed out on because of (Superfund)," Davison said. "It's been a real deterrent to a lot of growth."

But, the federal designation has also had its benefits. The cleanup work in Opportunity and across the region provided stable, good-paying jobs to Anacondans and those who live in the economically tied areas of Galen, Warm Springs and even Deer Lodge. The growth of the Montana State Prison and Montana State Hospital provided employment for a steady stream of residents since 1980.

"In addition to the black clouds there were some silver linings," Davison said.

ARCO's closure gave a number of Anacondans in their 40s and 50s sizeable retirement packages and good benefits. That generation helped keep Anaconda together, donating time and money to keep the community alive.

The Jack Nicklaus-designed Old Works Golf Course, which turned mounds of arsenic-tainted soil into a world-class golf destination, helped change the town's image and gave those early retirees a reason to remain in Anaconda.

For decades the city leaned on the golf course, Superfund jobs and the state facilities to stay afloat.

But recently, development has returned to the city.

NorthWestern Energy's Mill Creek substation is the largest and it could have an economic impact comparable to the smelter closure. The $200 million project could double the county's tax base and provide approximately $8 million annually in property taxes for the next 30 to 40 years.

Guay called the project "the biggest development in Anaconda since the smelter closed."

NEW DEVELOPMENTS

But it isn't the only development.

Butte-based Community, Counseling, and Correctional Services Inc. recently finished a $12.3 million facility that will employ 51 people and pay more than $2 million in annual salary and benefits, according to CCCS. AWARE Inc. is also developing projects on Superfund land and new businesses, from airport security outfits to restaurants, are slowly returning to the city.

"There is new business activity here, which is surprising because it's not really happening anywhere else yet," Guay said.

With the added tax base, Guay said the county is catching up infrastructure improvements that "hadn't been taken care of in 100 years."

Water lines are being repaired, new lighting is going up around town, the crumbling courthouse is being fixed.

Anaconda is "on the improve."

"It's a great place to be back to," Guay said. "Lots of people put a lot of work into this town, the downward trend has stabilized and now it will start paying off."

Reporter Tim Trainor may be reached via e-mail at tim.trainor@lee.net or call 496-5519.

 

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