As Livingston grows, residents are trying to figure out if the community should focus on maintaining a small town feel, capturing more tourists on their way to Yellowstone National Park or providing cheap housing for Bozeman.
Over 50 people take turns mingling around tables where photos of historic signs from downtown and landscaping with native plants have been taped to big sheets of paper. They’re at the Park County Complex in Livingston for the first public meeting about the new growth policy plan.
They put stickers next to images of things they like and write comments like “no” and “definitely not” beside photos of strip malls and large parking lots.
Sarah Stands grew up in Livingston, lived abroad for a while and then returned to her hometown as younger people started moving in. She says it’s made Livingston more dynamic.
“But on the other hand, what saddens me is a lot of my friends can’t afford to live here anymore," Stands says.
Median household income in Livingston is lower than the state’s overall average, according to American Community Survey Estimates and ESRI Business Analyst. For a while, that meant a lower cost of living half an hour away from one of the fastest growing micropolitan cities in the country.
“We are Bozeman’s affordable housing. It’s cheaper to buy a house here and pay mortgage than it is to rent in Bozeman," Stands says.
Stands and many of the other attendees at the meeting Tuesday say Livingston’s biggest challenge is trying to figure out how to maintain the town’s character and support its current residents while also planning for growth.
City Manager Michael Kardoes says this stage of the process is an opportunity for the community to help shape the future of Livingston 10, 20, even 50 years down the road.
“How we want to grow, the areas that we’re interested in: transportation, housing, economic development," Kardoes says.
While Livingston updated its growth policy plan in 2017, Kardoes says the last comprehensive assessment was over a decade ago. He says the city is paying Burton Planning Services and Applied Communications around $60,000 to do research and bring in new ideas.
After the presentation about the purpose and next steps for the growth plan, people in the audience share what they’d like to be included.
Daniella Love is a caretaker for seniors and a mother of two young kids. She says Livingston needs more activities and indoor community spaces for locals.
“We have a high rate of youth suicides, and that needs to be … we really need to focus on the youth in this community with the growth,” Love says.
Other people agree, saying Livingston would benefit from an indoor pool or a renovated civic center and more mental health services.
Jim Baerg spent his life as a builder and home designer. He says revitalizing downtown and bringing back all the small, independent shops would help foster face-to-face relationships and provide basic services for people.
“You can’t even buy a pair of underwear in this town, literally since Shopko left town. So our retail has been decimated and there are reasons for that, but it seems to me, if we’re thinking long-term, we ought to make an effort to regain some of that," Baerg says.
Berg says Livingston also needs higher-paying, year-round jobs to keep up with the rising cost of living. He and several other people say the town would benefit from more manufacturing jobs.
But others say Livingston should focus on catering to tourists.
Jeffrey Galli says service industry jobs can provide good incomes. He’s in the process of opening an Italian restaurant in downtown Livingston.
“I think we have an exploding market in Bozeman that is looking for new opportunities to reach out and I think Livingston is a perfect place for them to come for date night, for our summer activities," Galli says.
Like other communities outside popular destinations in Montana, Livingston is trying to figure out how to grapple with shifting economic drivers and how that affects locals.
The City of Livingston will finalize and adopt the growth policy plan in September. People have until January 31st to respond to a community survey, which is available online.