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City Desk

Boom goes Butte again?

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 by Diane Larson
ButteNews.net


Butte's longtime development chief comments as prosperity seems to beckon to the Summit Valley
Photo by Jim Larson

 

“I think Butte is going to be the place to be and a very, very special place, and it is already in my mind a special community, and we are set for some amazing, amazing things,” said Karen Byrnes in a conversation about all the recent purchases of quite a few of Butte’s historic buildings.

 

Karen Byrnes is the Community Development Director for Butte-Silver Bow. She was born and raised here and has an intrinsic passion for this beautifully unique city. She attended local schools and graduated from Butte High in 1990. Her college career took her to Montana State University for one quarter but then headed right back to Butte. “I got my degree from Montana Technological University in business,” said Karen. She later went back to school and in 2000 earned her master’s degree in business administration.

 

Karen has been teaching at Montana Tech since 2002 when she became an adjunct professor at the University.

 

After she graduated, she went to work for the Health Department. “That was my first official job related to my degree as a fiscal and data manager for one of their grant programs, it was a statewide program,” explained Karen. She was at the Health Department for 11 years.

 

To date Karen has served Butte-Silver Bow for 26 years. In 2005 she became the Community Development Director.

 

Twenty-six years ago, Karen married her high school sweetheart Sean, whom she had been dating since she was 15. They have one son, Sam. He is 19 and a freshman at Montana Tech.

Serious family history in Butte is a thread that weaves itself through both Karen and her husband’s extended families. “My husband’s family is from Butte, deep, deep roots,” said Karen. “My family on my mother’s side goes way back. “They ran the first hardware store in Butte,” said Karen. Her mom’s family moved away from Butte for a while. “My mom lived all over the country and met my dad in Salt Lake City, and they moved back to Butte before I was born in the 1960’s,” explained Karen.

 

“So, yeah, I think that it’s in my blood, this community is where I’m supposed to be. My husband and I have had many opportunities throughout our marriage and our careers to move and take other opportunities and none of them have ever felt right. This is where we are supposed to be. I love this community and I want to see it prosper,” said Karen.

 

 

As mentioned earlier, Karen is the Director of Community Development for Butte-Silver Bow. The office of community development has a huge array of responsibilities. “We’re a very busy, small in terms of number of staff members, office of local government,” said Karen.

 

The office of community development is charged with all economic and development activities for the city and County of Butte-Silver Bow.

 

“So, we manage Montana Connections, which is our industrial district to the West of town. We manage both, urban revitalization districts that are on the Hill, the East Butte District, and the Uptown district, which we refer to those as URAs. We just formed a district on Harrison Avenue last year, we also manage that district,” explained Karen.

 

They also manage the Targeted Economic Development, referred to as TED, that is located South of Butte. It is recognized by some as the industrial park. This is the area where you find such places as the MSE old facility, FedEx, and Crypto Watt.

 

On top of all that, they also manage all of the housing projects that received grant funds from the state of Montana that comes through their office. They are also responsible for neighborhood improvement projects, historic preservation, the Greenway service district, the building of the Greenway trail, land sales and land management of surplus property.

 

“We also manage some neighborhood improvement projects like stormwater projects in conjunction with the Public Works Department, but we apply for the grant funds through us,” said Karen.

 

Karen explained that her department applied for the grant funds for the Greely neighborhood’s stormwater project. Community Development also works on supportive housing and assisting the city’s homeless population. “We work on those kinds of projects and then we’re also in charge of the Parking Commission. So, to say that we do a lot of different things in a lot of different areas is an understatement,” said Karen. 

 

“We have a staff of 10 people, a smally staffed department, but we do some very impactful things, and we manage some large budgets,” Karen explained. They also have a grant writer on staff that writes grants for all of Butte-Silver Bow in all different areas.

 

Throughout all their work they partner with other Butte-Silver Bow entities such as the Butte Local Development Corporation or BLDC. The BLDC is one of the main partners in the community for economic development. Another entity they partner with is the Butte-Silver Bow Chamber of Commerce. “We liaison and work very closely with Montana Tech, St. James Healthcare, and Northwestern Energy in terms of promoting economic development in our community. We are in meetings with them every two weeks,” Karen explained.

 

One of the most remarkable things about Butte is its history, the buildings, the cultures, and the people. The history and architecture of its buildings is a wonder not only to its residents but to people who visit. The city sports the largest contiguous historic district in the United States.

 

During the tourist season you can walk the streets of Uptown Butte and see several people with their eyes pointed up to the buildings along with their cameras. Butte-Anaconda Historic District is a National Historic Landmark or NHL. This area spreads over Walkerville, Butte and Anaconda. It was declared an NHL in 1961 and has the most resources of any U.S. National Historic Landmark District.

 

To look at the buildings in Butte, especially the Uptown area is to recognize their historic significance. “The sheer number of available buildings and space that we have in Butte has always been looked at as both one of our greatest opportunities and also our greatest threats. It’s a double-edged sword.” said Karen.

 

However, in the last couple years Butte has been on the radar of many developers. “Recently, in the last couple of years, we have seen a major influx of interest in redevelopment of these properties [buildings in Uptown Butte]. I think it is a result of a couple of different things,” explained Karen. She said that one event is the pandemic. “What really highlighted for us as a community is our cost of living, the size that we are, the opportunities that exist, the cost of real estate, and people wanting to live in a more rural atmosphere away from so many people,” said Karen. 

 

The pandemic has definitely had people from all over thinking deeply about the quality of life, where they live, and wanting less crowded cities, towns, and more opportunity to grow and thrive. “And that has been a factor. It truly has. “Our office fields calls daily from people out of state, from large metropolitan areas that are looking at moving to a community like Butte,” Karen explained. Stories have surfaced in news sources like The Washington Post and NPR that tell of lifelong city dwellers taking a second look at their quality of life and wanting to go somewhere more rural.

 

“And they want to bring their jobs with them. They want to bring their business, their industry, wherever they work, they want to bring that with them,” explained Karen. She said that for some of these it is a factor of them coming here buying a home, maybe two homes and moving here and working out of their homes. But for others Karen said, it’s like relocation of their headquarters, relocation of their industry, or looking at one of our large commercial buildings and putting the business on main floor and creating a living space or spaces in the upper floors. Karen then reflected, “and if you think about it, that’s like going back to what it was and what it was meant to be.”

This style of living and working in the same building is reminiscent of how these buildings were originally used; and gives an insight into the building’s architecture. 

 

Some of the buildings in Uptown started changing hands a couple years ago. Developers were coming from out of state with an interest in buying properties the fall of 2019. Since then, the interest in Butte has grown exponentially.

Recent purchases or building changing hands include 75 East Park. This is the large vacant building that is currently all boarded up, with the windows covered. The old Northwestern Energy Building at 40 East Broadway is now in private ownership and the home to Montana Studios. The Salvation Army building on 121 East Broadway has sold to some folks from St. Louis. Karen said, “We saw a gentleman come in and buy five buildings at the same time. He bought two buildings on East Park Street. One of which is 401 West Park, the old YMCA; he bought a church on Montana and he bought the Rudolph’s Building.”

 

Other projects underway include the old St. James building on Mercury street. It is under contract with a developer, and the DeMolay building on Galena street just down from Central High School is a project in progress.

 

One of the historic buildings we almost lost to a fire in January of 2020, The Post Bar, has also changed ownership. This building, according to historicmt.org, was constructed in 1922 at a cost of $45,000. One of early Butte’s long-time newspapers, the Butte Daily Post moved its printing operations into the new building in early 1923 without missing a single issue. “A local construction company family, who acquired the building, has major plans for the building,” Karen said.

 

The projects, purchases, and buildings changing hands mentioned here is not a complete list of all going on currently. But does give an idea of the existing activity. “Our Uptown Butte district was built for so many more people than are in it right now and it’s been a challenge,” Karen said. She went on to say that it is a challenge because to try to fill up those buildings Butte needs growth. “Our population of 36,000ish people, there is no way we were ever going to fill those all up. We have to grow, in an effort to make use of all Butte offers in these Uptown buildings.” She explained that we have the visibility and the opportunity now because not only are people looking at creating businesses that would provide a service to our community, those businesses would also create jobs.

 

“And that’s what’s going to grow our population and grow our community. The growth that we’ve seen out in the Montana Connections Park with the relocation of industry and manufacturing, warehousing, and logistics is creating jobs in our community that will churn through,” explained Karen. Growth in Butte’s industrial sector is reflected in interest in Butte’s Uptown, the director noted. “We’re on just like this huge cycle of really good positive stuff, and I just can’t even, I’m so excited about all it,” said Karen.

 

The buildings that have already been remodeled or renovated in the last several years have all experienced success. From the luxury spaces like the Hirbour Tower to the more affordable apartments in other buildings. “All have been successful, every single one of them. That just shows me that people really want to live there, no matter what,” Karen said. The newly created condos in the O’Rourke Building sold out before they were finished, the director noted.



The O’Rourke Building at 101 West Quartz
Photo by Diane Larson

 

There is so much happening in our town. As mentioned earlier, good, positive things happening. This will create some change, and for those who are uncomfortable, they may not want to see this all change. “I really don’t feel like our community as a whole, what we are, and how we treat each other, and who we are is going to change. That’s not going to go anywhere. It’s so ingrained in our community. And that’s what people think is special,” explained Karen. 

 

It is what draws these developers to this town. It is what they love, the director noted. “They don’t want to see that change,” said Karen.

They want to be a part of that, and they want their families to be a part of that. It is something should make Butte’s citizens proud.


 


 

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