ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE BELGRADE NEWS - CLICK HERE TO SEE ORIGINAL
Written by: Sam Weber, staff writer
April 20, 2017
Eight miles of interstate separate Belgrade and Bozeman.
The close proximity, though convenient in some cases, is one of the biggest obstacles downtown Belgrade faces. Too often, said Tiffany Maierle, residents hop on the highway and do all of their business in Bozeman, returning to Belgrade just long enough for a good night’s sleep.
“Think of Belgrade first,” said Maierle, president of the Belgrade Community Coalition. “We need to change the mindset of putting support in our town first before heading into Bozeman.”
But how does one alter the perception of an entire city? What will entice residents to take pride in their address?
That’s precisely what a group of Belgrade citizens intend to find out. Earlier this year, several groups suddenly lit up with enthusiasm for making a change in Belgrade—Facebook groups, that is. Belgrade Moms, Ask Belgrade, the BLOCK Downtown Belgrade, Belgrade Town Hall Forum and more were covered with flurries of comments expressing a desire for change and growth.
Christine Stoppa started the Belgrade Moms page a few years ago after a Bozeman group cancelled an art class in Belgrade to which she’d hoped to take her daughters. The group said there was no way to communicate with Belgrade families.
Now, Belgrade Moms has more than 1,300 followers. Stoppa said the missing Festival of Lights last Christmas prompted a viral discussion on the page.
“There was just this explosion of people who all the sudden wanted to do something,” Stoppa said. “A lot of people were sick of driving to Bozeman for everything. I think it’s awesome. You have to have that first step.”
Meg Ryan, owner of Re:Alignment in downtown Belgrade, noticed the momentum, too. She decided to harness the energy and organized a “meeting of the minds” with any interested parties from the Belgrade Facebook groups.
Ryan moved her business from Bozeman to Belgrade about three-and-a-half years ago because she was sick of “keeping up with the Joneses.” Though many of her clients followed her, some refused to drive the six miles to her new space.
“I was sick of people saying there’s nothing going on here,” she said. “It seems like our poor little town has just fizzled.”
Though downtown looks like a “ghost town,” Ryan added, the camaraderie between businesses is strong.
“It’s like a family,” she said of the locals who gather at The Spotted Horse Café. “Spending time there just fills your soul.”
Around 20 people of all ages came to the “meeting of the minds,” Ryan said. They discussed ways to help strengthen Belgrade businesses, how to “rebrand” the city and where they should focus their efforts to boost the community.
“People were just stoked,” she said. “They want to see change and growth. There’s a lot of momentum in the community right now and if anyone else wants to get something done, I encourage them to do it now.”
In response to the abrupt fervor, teams of volunteers are focusing their efforts on two substantial projects this year: the Festival of Lights and a new farmers market, the Belgrade Community Market.
Underwhelming participation leading up to the annual Festival of Lights last year resulted in a poor showing for the event, typically headed up by the Belgrade Chamber of Commerce.
Belgrade Chamber of Commerce Director Debe Youngberg said she hoped for a new group of strong volunteers would be able to breath some life into the festival. Maierle and the rest of the Belgrade Community Coalition board members answered the call.
Youngberg said the energy in Belgrade, not only surrounding the Festival of Lights, is “great.” It’s been a long time since community service groups have been active in the city, she added.
“As kids got busier and more women were working outside the home, it seemed like people didn’t have time to devote to community service groups anymore,” she said. “There’s a group of moms now that want more things for their kids. They’ve realized if something’s going to happen, volunteers need to do it.”
That’s exactly what’s happened. Belgrade mom and volunteer Renae Mattimoe said it’s taken a motivated group of people to finally take on the challenge of enhancing the community.
“People have always said, ‘Oh, they should do this, they should fix that,’” Mattimoe said. “Who is ‘they’? ‘They’ are your neighbors, ‘they’ is everyone in the Belgrade community. We are ‘they.’”
The “they” leading the charge for the Festival of Lights resurrection is headed up by Maierle. She said committees have set a date for Saturday, Dec. 9, and planned out an all-day one-stop shop and kids activities at the Belgrade Special Events Center, a “Santa march” downtown, some sort of tree lighting and holiday activities involving businesses.
“We were thrilled to do it because it fits right in with our mission, cultivating a stronger sense of community for Belgrade,” Maierle said.
The Belgrade Community Market is a new event coming to the city this summer, representing another strong effort to give Belgrade a boost. Christine Stoppa rallied a committee for the farmers market and partnered with the BCC to get it going.
Furthermore, the BCC is looking into developing trail systems through the city to enhance connectivity in more ways than one. They’ve been getting advice from the Gallatin Valley Land Trust about establishing trails.
“We want the citizens of the town to feel not only physically, but personally connected to our community and proud to call Belgrade home,” Maierle said.
To get people to take pride in Belgrade, Mattimoe said the community must first attempt to quash negative perceptions swirling around it. “I don’t know how we get rid of this ‘Belowgrade’ thing,” she said. “We’re a joke to the rest of Gallatin County and I don’t know why that is. I feel like Belgrade has some of the hardest working people and I don’t know what we have this reputation of being less.”
Stoppa suggested Belgrade started to flounder when it got caught up in “the Bozeman boom.”
“The community was kind of getting fractured,” she said. “We have to find a way to tie the new and the old together. The people who have been here 30, 40, 50 years have a very different perception of Belgrade than the people who just moved here last month.”
Stoppa and Ryan both said the diverse groups living in Belgrade need to meet in the middle somehow. Young families who got priced out of Bozeman, fourth generation ranchers and workers who are new to the valley are all part of the fabric of Belgrade. Getting them all to identify cohesively as Belgrade citizens necessitates a “ new image,” Ryan said.
“Whether or not we wanted to be in Belgrade in the first place, we have an amazing community of people here,” she added. “No one’s looking for a change to take away the ag or farming heritage in Belgrade. That’s vital. We just want more.”
Maierle said it’s crucial to keep the passion and communication going.
“There are just a bunch of organizations coming together and that’s really what I would like to see going forward,” she said. “I think that we all have the same goal and that’s to make a stronger Belgrade and to make a great community.”
Communicating with every corner of the city is a big challenge, Maierle added. Facebook has been a great way to get started, but that doesn’t appeal to everyone. Monthly newsletters, regular open forums and good old-fashioned word of mouth could all come into play.
Mattimoe said supporting local businesses is key, too. Recognizing all the services available in Belgrade would encourage more people to shop local and spend their dollars right in town.
“When you need a service, recommend a place in Belgrade,” she said.
Though it’s not entirely clear how this community momentum will move forward, Maierle said she’s confident it will.
“It’s pretty exciting,” she said. “I can’t wait to see what the next couple of years hold. There’s power in numbers. The more people we can involved, the more we can do.”