As a generation, millennials sometimes get a bad rap.

Some have called them the generation lazy, while others have accused the group of being responsible for the demise of the retail industry. Just ask Business Insider, which recently came out with a list of everything millennials are “killing,” including starter homes, macro beers, golf and even napkins.     

But no matter how you dice it, one thing’s for certain: young people have been leaving rural communities by the droves.

In a recent article featured in High Country News, Solutions Journalism Network reports that “in every decade since 1980, most rural counties in the 11 Western states lost 20-somethings, without an influx of other young adults to make up for the loss.”

The flight of young people from rural communities can be a frightening concept for economic-development advocates in southwest Montana.

As more baby boomers head into retirement, someone will need to pick up where they left off as government leaders, health care workers, teachers and other important roles.

But given current migration trends, will there be anyone around to take their place?

Viability of small town living

Joe Willauer, executive director at the Butte Local Development Corp., said he’s optimistic about retaining and attracting young people to the Mining City.

At age 33, Willauer believes his community has a lot to offer for people under 40, especially those who have grown tired of big-city prices and are looking for an alternative.

Willauer said he doesn’t identify as a millennial and doesn’t like the label — and that’s something he shares with Marketing Director Cooper Fisher, 23, and Director of Loan Services Adam Benson, 29, who are helping lead the helm at the BLDC.      

Soon the three economic-development advocates will get a chance to showcase Butte during the annual Montana Young Professional Summit, June 21-23, during which more than 150 young professionals will descend upon the Mining City.

“That will be in the neighborhood of 150 to 200 young professionals from throughout the state coming to town to see what Butte’s all about and to really talk about the kind of challenges and opportunities statewide we have as young professionals,” said Willauer, who is co-founder of the networking group Butte Young Professionals.

When asked what challenges Montana young professionals face, the three economic-development advocates were hard-pressed to speak from experience.

All have moved up in their careers relatively quickly, have struck up mentorships with leaders in their field and have taken advantage of the affordability Butte’s housing stock, already owning their own home or are making the first steps toward home ownership.

 “In our line of work you have to dwell on the positive,” said Willauer. “My career has expanded so much. I’ve been trained by people like Pam Haxby-Cote, who is now the (Montana) Director of Commerce. I get to see all of our state legislators, our senators, our governor. And it’s in large part from where we live and what we have access to, and I think that’s so unique.”   

Benson agreed.

“I feel like you can really carve out your spot in the community much faster here than you could in a lot of other towns,” he said. 

Fisher, meanwhile, has gone from being a Montana Tech student with an internship at Butte’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau to landing a job as the BLDC’s marketing director within the course of a few years.

The 23-year-old attributes the pace of his career to the people he’s met along the way and the willingness of community leaders to share their knowledge.

 “I think that everything you’d consider a challenge, especially in Butte, could also be more of a strength,” said Fisher.

He noted that small towns don’t boast the populations of metropolitan areas. But with those smaller numbers comes access to community leaders, many of whom, Fisher said, are eager to serve as mentors.

Young entrepreneurs from Butte and other southwest Montana towns also said they see small-town life as an asset, noting that small towns boast more affordable residential and commercial properties and often have under saturated markets in certain sectors.

The Montana Standard met with a group of young entrepreneurs last week at the new Uptown bakery North 46 to talk about their lives as business owners.

Casey McConnell opened the bakery Jan. 11 at 102 E. Granite St., the former location of Taco del Sol.

McConnell has revamped the building’s interior, giving it a modern feel and doing much of the renovations herself. North 46 serves treats like pies and pastries, along with sandwiches made with fresh ingredients, including the bread, which McConnell makes herself.

Like the BLDC crew, the entrepreneurs said they have worked with experienced mentors in their industry.

Janelle, 29, and Aaron Hildreth, 33, in 2015 opened BeeHive Homes, an assisted-living franchise at 2930 Elm St.

Janelle said she and her husband Aaron went the franchise route because they wanted to work with a particular person in their field, regional franchiser Ty Harding.

Mike Potts, meanwhile, owns the taproom Slainte! Butte America Pub at 43 E. Park St. with his wife Mallory Potts, 31.

The 34-year-old said he’s learned a lot about the service industry from Butte’s Pour House Pub owner Kevin Everett and Potts’ father-in-law Mike Grunow, who owns Lolo Creek Steakhouse in Lolo and has operated about a dozen establishments throughout his career.

Potts said his father-in-law helped him learn how to keep his books and, in turn, Potts introduced Grunow to the social-media application Untapped, which allows users to rate craft beers and keep up with what’s being served at their favorite watering hole.

Potts said he uses the app to stay connected with the customers of Butte America Pub and let them know what new beers he’s featuring on his more than 30 taps.

New approaches

Potts is not the only young professional in Butte who’s using social media as a marketing tool.

In 2016, Fisher spearheaded a “selfie spot” initiative through the Butte Chamber of Commerce.

The initiative involved the installation of 24 vinyl decals at tourist attractions around Butte. The decals, which stick to the ground, invite people to snap photos of themselves and post the photos on social media using Butte-themed hashtags. It’s a way to merge tourism marketing with the interaction offered by social media.

 “You have to stay culturally relevant in any marketing situation,” Fisher said in 2016. “You have to be able to capitalize on trends.”

Are millennials entrepreneurial?

But despite whatever new insights they may bring to the table, millennials may not be all that entrepreneurial.

Major media outlets — including The Atlantic, which has said that millennials are starting companies at the lowest rate seen in 25 years — have come out with articles claiming that the generation is less entrepreneurial than previous, perhaps as a result of student debt.  

Entrepreneurs interviewed by The Standard said student debt hasn’t stopped them from starting their businesses, but debt is something that has caused people in their generation to rethink the role of education.

“I think that you have to be a real risk taker to start your own company,” said Sheena Hensley, 33, owner of Senior Solutions Inc., 125 W. Granite St., which provides in-home personal care for aging and disabled people.

Hensley, who won the BLDC’s award for Woman Entrepreneur of the Year in 2015, started her business in 2014 with 20 employees and now employs a staff of nearly 50, about 80 percent of which are fulltime. She’s in the process of launching a hospice program, replete with Medicare reimbursement, which she anticipates will accept its first patients in the next couple of weeks.

“A lot of people our age are going to school and getting degrees and master’s-level education,” said Hensley. “So I think it just is a personality trait, because not everybody’s born to be an entrepreneur.”

McConnell agreed.

“I think we’ve been coached in our generation that secondary education and college is really the only option (and) the best option. So to see past that and be an entrepreneur… I think it’s rare and I think it’s a less emphasized option for our generation.”    

“I feel like we’re just taught to spend,” said Aaron Hildreth. “That’s why you can’t get entrepreneurs, because people live in debt.”

As for Fisher, he said he doesn’t see his generation as less entrepreneurial.

“I don’t think you see millennials necessarily going out and doing what you would consider typical entrepreneurship: going out and creating a product, starting a new business (in) retail, restaurants and things like that,” said Fisher. “(Instead) they bring entrepreneurship in the way of making life easier… so it’s creating that next app, it’s creating new ways in that really high-end tech side I think.”

Attracting and retaining young people

When asked what can be done to attract more young people to small towns, the entrepreneurs said recruiting employers in high-paying sectors and making more investments in recreational facilities like Stodden Park would help.

McConnell, meanwhile, said it’s about doing a better job of showcasing the assets the community already has, while Katie Holden, 29, owner of Diamond H Embroidery in Sheridan, said support from friends and neighbors goes a long way.

Jessica Holmes, another recipient of the BLDC’s Woman Entrepreneur of the Year award, agrees.

“I really always try to support people and their ideas,” said Holmes, 27, who launched her business on Broadway Street in 2010, but later moved to a property on Montana Street to accommodate a growing clientele.

In 2015, Holmes moved Beauty on Broadway to a newly constructed building at 449 E. Park St.

Holmes’ sister, Matison Hiner, owns the second-hand clothing store Overdressed, which she launched in April in the basement of Beauty on Broadway when she was just 19-years-old.

A generation of dreamers

Many of the people interviewed by The Standard said they didn’t see themselves as millennials. But one aspect of the generational label that most seemed to embrace is the picture of a civic-minded generation seeking to create meaning through work.

 “We all stay here, at least in our office, because (we feel) what we are doing for work is important and we care about our community and we want to make a change,” said Willauer.

Fisher agreed.   

“I guess entrepreneurship is alive in who (millennials) are as people as well as a generation,” said Fisher. “Maybe not traditionally in ways that you’d think, but it’s there, it’s a spirit, it’s a drive.” 

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for The Montana Standard.

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