HAMILTON, Mont. — As small towns elsewhere saw prosperity pass them by in favor of the big cities, something unusual happened to this rural hamlet tucked in the Bitterroot Valley: It flourished.
Two local boys came home from college and launched a microbrewery that takes in more than $1 million in annual sales.
Retirees arrived in droves, drawn by affordable land and recreation opportunities in the area’s snow-frosted mountains and trout-filled streams.
And the federal government’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories opened a state-of-the-art biosafety facility to investigate the deadliest viral diseases, including Ebola.
Hamilton’s median household income is $30,000 annually, well below the state’s $50,000 figure, though the gap is significantly narrower for married couples.
The outdoors is more than a scenic backdrop — it’s a pillar of the local economy.
The recreation industry plays an outsized role in determining the fate of places like Hamilton. In recent years, the recovery of a once-endangered fish, the west slope cutthroat trout, helped spur a surge in outdoor tourism. Some who come here as tourists later stay for good.
Nationwide, since the recession’s end, people have been more likely to move to counties with opportunities for outdoor activities than those without them, according to a January study by Headwaters Economics. …. Recreation may make the difference between gaining or losing population, particularly in rural counties,” the study found.
At city hall, Mayor Dominic Farrenkopf, 40, seeks to balance growth and Hamilton’s small-town appeal. … “I don’t see a massive expansion of population. I see a nice steady growth,” Farrenkopf said. “I wouldn’t mind adding another 1,000 people to the city.”
But some local voices already have been raised against unbridled growth …