Montana State University report sheds light on newcomers to Treasure State

By: - April 18, 2022 5:05 pm

A favorite trail in Missoula in the North Hills. People are moving to Montana for access to the outdoors, according to an MSU Extension study. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

People moving into Montana seek the same things its residents appreciate — access to the outdoors, less congestion and a slower pace of life.

In fact, 66 percent of newcomers to Montana rated a desirable natural environment as an important factor in their relocation, the most sought-after feature among a list of 22, according to a recently released study by Montana State University Extension.

“Newcomers indicate that they frequently take advantage of the amenities of their new community such as rivers, trails, community events and the like,” said the study, called Montana Movers Study 2021 Report. “They report high levels of engagement in their new community, including volunteerism, attendance at public meetings and establishing social connections in their new community.”

Obviously, people have been moving to larger communities in Montana, the study said. But it said so much media attention has focused on the “decline and despair” of rural towns, “it is less known that people are also moving to Montana’s rural communities.”

The Montana survey noted that it closely replicated an earlier “Brain Gain” study conducted in Minnesota. The study said Montana audiences who heard findings from the Minnesota study were skeptical the data would hold true in Montana, but the research outcomes were similar.

“We know that people are moving into every nook and cranny of Montana,” said Tara Mastel, community development associate specialist at MSU Extension, in a phone call Monday.

She also said people moving to rural areas think they will stay longer: “I think the narrative about our rural places in Montana tends to be sort of negative, that they’re dying, that they’re folding up. This shows that certainly, places are facing challenges, but there are still people that want to live there.”

Source: Montana Movers Study 2021 Report

MSU Extension has a mission to improve the lives of Montanans with research that strengthens the social, economic and environmental well-being of families and communities. The Montana Movers Study noted COVID-19 accelerated migration into the Treasure State, but it also said only 4 percent of people surveyed said their move was motivated by the pandemic.

The study looked at people who moved to rural places, larger cities, and those in the workforce, or those 18 to 64 years old. Roughly half of the respondents moved from within Montana, and roughly half moved from outside Montana, according to survey results.

The study said most people moving from outside Montana came from California, Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Idaho (see table). In addition to the great outdoors, the top factors that drove the relocation of newcomers who are workforce age were the following:

  • 57 percent want a less congested place to live,
  • 53 percent want to take advantage of a slower pace of life,
  • 51 percent want to live in a smaller community,
  • 44 percent want a safer place to live,
  • 43 percent want a good environment for raising children, and
  • 41 percent want to live among people with similar values.

As such, the research sheds a different light on one conventional economic development strategy in Montana, Mastel said. Often, people talk about bringing jobs to Montana for economic development.

“(But) people are moving not necessarily for a job, they’re moving really for quality of life reasons,” Mastel said.

Rural areas are those in yellow, and micro/metropolitan areas are those in blue, according to the MSU Extension study, citing U.S. Census Bureau parameters. Source: Montana Movers Study 2021 Report

So the small improvements people make in their communities, such as public events and beautification efforts, are worth it because those are the things people care about when they’re choosing a place to live, she said.

“This lends a lot of credibility to the argument that it’s worth making our communities better places to live,” Mastel said.

Plus, she said the reasons outsiders move to Montana is similar to the reasons people already living here appreciate their state: “Though we sometimes, lately, are focusing on our differences, I think we have a lot in common, especially the quality of life we have here in Montana.”

The report noted housing availability is a challenge in rural places as well as larger communities, and availability of housing was one of the lowest ranked factors in the survey. It said just 32 percent of respondents said they moved to find lower cost housing: “Is lower cost housing not available in Montana?”

The study also said a sense of welcoming affects people’s interest in staying in a community, which in turn affects the Montana economy: “Those that rate a community low for welcoming say they are unlikely to stay in the community long-term, which has significant implications for recruiting workforce or remote workers for Montana employers.

“Being welcoming to newcomers is free and can have a significant impact on retaining workforce or new residents.”

Once people land in Montana, Mastel said they not only take advantage of amenities such as lakes and trails, they get involved, volunteering at high rates, making friends and attending public meetings. She said those things are important.

“The challenge is to welcome those new people in and offer them a seat at the table to be able to contribute because sometimes they don’t know where to dig in,” Mastel said. But she said Montana needs new, fresh faces who are willing to help run communities.

Source: Montana Movers Study 2021 Report

The survey was conducted in April and May 2021 by sending questions to homes on parcels that had changed ownership in the previous five years based on information provided by the Montana Department of Revenue. Surveys went to all 56 counties, although responses did not come back from Powder River and Petroleum counties.

The survey elicited 907 responses from rural addresses and 856 from larger metropolitan/micropolitan addresses as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau out of 8,848 delivered surveys. For the primary group examined in this survey, people who changed zip codes, the relative response rate was 13.62 percent, and the error rate was +/- 3.09 percent.

The study noted its limitations included no systematic inclusion of renters given the source information came from title transfers. It also noted tribal communities were not captured because of the source data, although Mastel said a look at migration into Indigenous communities is a research priority.

The Montana Movers Study was funded by lead sponsor the Montana Community Foundation and Montana Farm Bureau Foundation.

Montana Movers for DM

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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