2018 State of the Community: Commissioner addresses challenges, opportunities

Sentences for dad

What are some of the major challenges and opportunities facing Missoula County in 2018? From creating attainable housing and managing population growth to preserving our historical, cultural and environmental history, possibilities for progress abound within the county’s borders. Following a heartfelt introduction written by his children (see above image), Commissioner Dave Strohmaier addressed these issues and more in remarks delivered April 9 at the 2018 State of the Community.

Read the commissioner’s full speech below, and let us know your thoughts by emailing communications@missoulacounty.us.

2018 State of the Community Address

Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, chair

Board of County Commissioners

Dave StrohmaierOn behalf of the board of county commissioners and the over 800 employees of Missoula County government, welcome. A big thank you to City Club for hosting today’s event, William Marcus for moderating, President Bodnar and Mayor Engen, and to all of you for taking the time out of your day to reflect on the state of this place we call home. Indeed, home and place are at the heart of my comments today.

Right out of the chute, I need to get one thing off my chest. You’ll often hear folks talk about the city and the county as if they are two separate geographic areas. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I feel obligated to break the news that the city of Missoula actually is in Missoula County! And our fates are intertwined. The food you buy in a Missoula grocery store did not spontaneously generate in the produce department, and the beef raised in Potomac or Grass Valley, or the lumber milled in Seeley Lake, very likely will be purchased by someone in an urban area.

From my downtown Missoula office, I look across Pine Street to the city council chambers and city hall—daily reminders that municipal and county government have similar missions in the Missoula Valley. I also have a great view of the North Hills, Mount Jumbo, grazing elk and the ancient shorelines of glacial Lake Missoula, all emblems of the deep natural history of this place that help define who we are.

People are drawn here for pure water, wild places and cultural authenticity, not streams running orange from acid mine drainage or anonymous sprawl. When entrepreneurs come before the Board of County Commissioners seeking economic development assistance by way of Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund grants, we frequently ask them why they want to invest in Missoula County and, almost without exception, the first response they give is quality of life, which has everything to do with nature and culture.

In some respects, these are the good old days. The city of Missoula controls its own water destiny. We just celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the breaching of the Milltown Dam, and in June we’ll be celebrating the opening of a new state park at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers. The community of Seeley Lake is on a path to have its own wastewater treatment facility. And we’ve learned to embrace our rivers rather than treating them as open sewers. But more work remains.

Missoula County has partnered with the Lolo National Forest and Trout Unlimited to reclaim abandoned placer mines in the Ninemile watershed, but another $4.5 to $5 million is needed to fully restore Ninemile Creek and adjoining tributaries. We must remember the past in order to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

With the help of Representative Kim Dudik, the Montana Legislature and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, we successfully negotiated the payment of over a million dollars in delinquent taxes on the Smurfit-Stone Container site, but the site remains badly contaminated and we must remain vigilant to get it cleaned up.

Climate change is real and we, in local government, have the power, and, I’d argue, the moral obligation, to make a difference. That’s why we’ve hired an energy conservation and sustainability coordinator to guide our efforts to lessen our carbon footprint. We must, and we are, preparing ourselves for the effects of a changing climate and nurturing community resiliency through good planning, such as updating our Community Wildfire Protection Plan and overhauling our 1970s-era land-use map. Viewed through the lens of resiliency, again, we must, and we are thinking creatively about how to balance attainable housing, agriculture, wildlife habitat and community character, and do so in a way that doesn’t undermine the very quality of life that defines this place.

Alongside a clean and healthy environment, culture also defines our quality of life. There’s a sign on the side of the Fort Benton elementary school in Choteau County that reads “Industry is Useless without Culture.” That phrase is every bit as powerful today, here in Missoula County, as it was during the New Deal era when the sign was first erected. All too often, and at our peril, we reduce the value of the arts, culture and the humanities to monetary value and forget the role that culture and heritage play in nurturing civil society and civic engagement. That’s why we support the Missoula Art Museum and its programming that reaches across the county. It’s why we see the fairgrounds as a nexus of urban and rural and worthy of investments. It’s why the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula is a steward of our county’s heritage, including stories of shame and trauma, like the World War II alien detention center. If ever there was a time to remember these stories, it is now.

Even the seat of our county government — the courthouse — is a symbol of our commitment to culture and environmental sustainability. I’m pleased to publicly announce that our renovated courthouse (yes the cyclone fencing will come down this spring!), has just achieved LEED Silver status, one of a handful of National Register-listed buildings in the country to receive this honor.

But culture in this place did not begin with names such as Lewis and Clark, Worden, or Paxson. The cultural landscape of this place extends back millennia, and remains the homeland of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille. On Oct. 21, 1891, the Weekly Missoulian reported, “About noon Friday the entire tribe of the Flathead Indians from the Bitter Root passed through the city, being en route to the Flathead Reservation. Many of them left their old home never to return, but they did not appear to be disheartened or cast down. They jogged along as though rather enjoying the change …”  I can assure you that there were a multitude of voices who were absolutely not “enjoying the change” as the U.S. Army escorted the Bitterroot Salish north, across the Higgins Avenue Bridge and on to the Flathead Reservation. Cultural trauma. Dislocation. Essential to remember.

Missoula, and particularly the place where you are seated today adjacent to Rattlesnake Creek, is known by the Salish as the Place of the Small Bull Trout. Tribal elder Louie Adams told the story of how his maternal grandmother was born at the present-day location of the University of Montana, and of his family fishing for bull trout in the waters outside this hotel. Place. Places that matter. Places that tell stories.

The Séliš-Ql̓ispé traditionally dug bitterroot throughout the Missoula Valley, such as where Shopko sits today and at Fort Missoula. We’ll soon be installing interpretive signage at the regional park that describes the homeland of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille people. We’ll also continue to restore bitterroot in a native prairie at the Fort and collaborate with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to honor tribal cultural heritage across Missoula County.

So friends, the state of Missoula County is strong. Nevertheless, there is work to do. Too many of our neighbors do not have enough to eat, have trouble finding housing, and struggle to make ends meet. Too many fail to understand the cultural landscape upon which we live and, as a result, risk repeating tragic mistakes of the past.

In the face of this, do we have the moral courage and empathy to reach out to those in need or do we succumb to the temptation to judge and blame and insulate ourselves with indifference? Are we more concerned about parsing whether we’re offering a hand up or a hand out rather than just offering a helping hand? Has the accumulation of wealth made us callous or blind to the circumstances beyond our control that shaped our lives and shape the lives of others, and that the lives of others are every bit as complex as our own? Do the bootstraps that some say we should pull ourselves up by keep getting longer and longer?

Here is the challenge of those of us at this table and those of us in this room: How do we create and sustain authentic places that honor our heritage and provide for the needs of residents and visitors alike? And how might the county, city and university partner in creating the conditions for an informed citizenry to realize their visions, hopes and dreams? We are all in this together. If ever there was a county up to the challenge, it is Missoula County. Thanks.

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