Stars are crowding Big Sky country's empty landscape

November 05, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Bozeman, Mont. -- You got your Atlanta Braves owner/cable TV czar Ted Turner and his actress/fitness-guru wife Jane Fonda on the edge of town, raising buffalo. Downtown, there's a coffeehouse that you can't walk past without someone telling you it's owned by Glenn Close. You've got Gomer Pyle living up north, Batman living down south, and so many celebrities in between that you need that "Entertainment Tonight" lady to help tell your Kiefer from your Emilio. Which is OK because she lives in these parts, too.

From Mary Hart to Tom Brokaw, from Charlie Sheen to Brooke Shields, the rich and famous -- not to mention hordes of fairly well-off and unknown Californians -- have been pouring into Montana as steadily as the cappuccino flows at the Leaf & Bean (it's owned by Glenn Close, you know).

Don't misunderstand. There is still plenty of room in Montana, with about five people per square mile (compared with 265 per square mile in Pennsylvania)and still more bears than Burger Kings.

And transplants are still generally welcome. But there is some rumbling on the range. It's not exclusively aimed at celebrities, or outsiders, or environmentalists (though if you're all three you're best off keeping your mouth shut). It's more of a sad realization that the fiber of the Big Sky state is slowly changing, and there's not a darn thing that can be done about it.

Parts of Montana have been losing population as cattle ranching, farming, mining and timbering have declined. Other parts of the state have been going gang busters -- those parts, essentially western Montana, that, blessed with scenic beauty, have capitalized on tourism and land sales.

Massive farms and ranches are being carved into 20-acre ranchettes. Retirees are being drawn by the low cost of living. Moneyed folks, not dependent on Montana to make a living, have streamed in -- from authors who can live wherever they please to fax-toting corporate wheels able to leave their corporations behind.

Meanwhile, for many longtime residents, jobs are hard to find. Wages are low. Housing prices are shooting up because of the increased demand. And what locals fear most is that urban refugees will bring with them precisely what they're coming to get away from.

"What people here feel is not so much resentment as it is a fear of losing their town -- is it going to be a place where we want to live?" said Hugh Conklin, editor of the Whitefish Pilot.

"The celebrities pretty much blend in up here," he added. "I think there has been more concern about Californians in general, who have come up here and driven up housing prices. Property values have risen 2 percent a month since 1990."

Among the big names who have bought land in the Whitefish area are Carol Burnett, Jim Nabors (still Gomer to many), director Michael Cimino, San Francisco 49ers owner Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., actors Kiefer Sutherland and Emilio Estevez, and "Entertainment Tonight" anchorwoman Mary Hart and her producer husband, Burt Sugarman.

Ms. Hart and Mr. Sugarman raised some hackles this summer when they sought permission to fence off 50 acres of public land adjacent to their 132-acre private ranch -- a proposal that met opposition from residents concerned that the fence would restrict recreational access and wildlife patterns.

"He came here for the wide-open spaces and, when he gets here, he wants to fence it off," said Frankie Mocassin, bemoaning the "Hollywood hype" that he says has taken over the town and, to an extent, the state.

A regular guy in a flannel shirt, Mr. Mocassin sat in a booth at the Great Northern Bar & Grill in Whitefish, a once-sleepy railroad and timber town that, since its development as a ski resort, has become one of the state's hottest spots.

"It's not so much the celebrities or the growth that bothers me," he said. "It's the kind of development -- they're not building houses for the people who are here. They're building big places, and this is a $4-to-$5-an-hour town."

Two of the areas most in vogue are Whitefish and Flathead Lake (where property buyers include comedian Shecky Greene; actors Dirk Benedict, John Lithgow, Jan-Michael Vincent and Charlie Sheen; golfers Craig Stadler and Lon Hinkle; Phoenix Cardinals quarterback Timm Rosenbach, and Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson).

In the Bitterroot Valley, property owners include recording artists Hoyt Axton, Huey Lewis and Hank Williams Jr.; actors Polly Bergen and Christopher Lloyd, and investment broker Charles Schwab.

In the Big Timber-McLeod area, NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw has a ranch, as do "Batman" star Michael Keaton, actress Brooke Shields, sports commentator Brent Musburger, author Thomas McGuane, jazz musician Dave Grusin, and Oakland Athletics owner Walter Haas Jr.

And the Bozeman area is home, at least part of the year, to actors Jeff Bridges, Peter Fonda, Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan and Glenn Close (she owns the Leaf & Bean, you know); opera singer Pablo Elvira, and, of course, Ted Turner and Jane Fonda.

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