By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
BOZEMAN – Andrea Hawthorne was walking her dogs down Cottonwood Canyon Road on the south end of Gallatin Valley when a man pulled his car beside her. He rolled down his window and asked if there was property for sale in the area. They were visiting from Oklahoma, he said, and they intended to move here.
“Just the way he said it,” Hawthorne said of the exchange, “So definitive.” She went back up the road to her own home, one of two employee housing cabins on the property of Yellowstone Alliance Adventures, a Christian youth camp, where she and her husband Jim have lived since they moved here in 1995. Since then, the Hawthornes have raised five kids in this canyon—Jessica, Ellie, Robert, Brianna and Keegan.
“Encroachment has been a real issue,” Jim said. “When we came 25 years ago, there was quite a bit of open space with several neighbor residents. Now, we’ve just had a neighbor sell a two-acre piece of land with a 900 square foot home for $600,000. So when we think of the nonprofit reality, it’s just …”
“ … the future is uncertain,” Andrea finished the thought.
Much of the Hawthornes’ personal and professional lives are riddled with ironies. They don’t own any portion of the nonprofit they’ve devoted their lives to and although they’ve been provided housing and help with their children’s education, homeownership has always been out of reach, even as they approach retirement.
The Hawthornes met in Wheaton, Illinois and spent the first years of their marriage in Wisconsin. Faith runs deep in their family tree and they wanted their professional endeavors to follow the same path. Andrea’s father, a pastor in White Sulfur Springs at the time, encouraged Jim, who had earned a master’s degree in educational ministries, to interview for an executive director position with a nondescript camp south of Bozeman owned by the Christian Missionary Alliance Church.
YAA sits on 80-acres of land and was established in 1961. Its decrepitude made them almost turn down the job, but the board knew it had potential and the Hawthornes were inspired.
Today, YAA offers day and weeklong camps for kids from first grade through high school, including a college councilor program. Andrea calls her husband a “visionary,” and through his eyes they’ve built the campus up to the full-service establishment it is today.
Their programs draw neighboring communities such as Townsend, Helena, Great Falls and Billings, but the Hawthornes estimate 60 percent of their kids are from Gallatin Valley. Some families have been coming for generations—some parents rely on it for daycare. Regardless of reason, everyone who arrives finds in it a sense of community and treasured memories.
“A lot of what I call blood, sweat and tears has gone into this place and into this valley,” Andrea said. “All the people, hundreds … of people that go through here, we get to serve and give a good week. Our goal is to give kids the greatest week of their life.”
Bozeman is no stranger to the glossy pages of destination and real estate magazines. The pandemic, however, has caused what many call “resortification” to reach a new velocity.
In 2020, according to the Gallatin Association of Realtors, inventory for single-family homes was down 67 percent, average price was up 25 percent and 99 percent of sales received the listing price or more. These are trends the realtors association expect to continue as more people seek the lifestyle and landscape Montana offers.
Jim and Andrea have spoken to a realtor about the realities of buying a home nearby. They learned that anecdotally there are often more than 40 people lined up behind a single offer. One house is on the market every seven days and it’s usually gone in under three. Andrea said they’ve all but lost the energy to peruse.
“That was a rude awakening, to realize that where we’ve invested 26 years of our lives is not likely to be the place that we’ll be able to retire,” Jim said.
The business, too, has been at odds with the valley’s growth. Jim says while many families moving in from cities find their pricing to be on the low end, a fee hike would price working class families out entirely. There’s room on the calendar for program expansion, but there isn’t for physical growth—with landowners on three sides and the National Forest boundary on the fourth, YAA is boxed in.
Jim calls it a “two-edged sword.” He says while those moving to Montana have the idea that the Treasure State is a place of value, growth is restricting what nonprofits such as YAA can provide for both newcomers in the valley, and the neighboring rural communities that have been here for generations.
“… sentiment doesn’t make decisions for people in the same way that the market makes decisions for people and truly what we’re seeing is the market having the final say.”Sean Hawksford
“We have to serve both communities,” he said. “We could probably elevate both the quality of our programs and the things we offer and charge $2,000 a week, and the new clients that are coming into Bozeman would pay it without batting an eye. But then that would shut the door … we can’t price-fix for one group of people versus another. It’s really difficult to figure out that balance.”
Gallatin Valley’s skyrocketing growth and the crescendoing housing crisis have touched more than one in their family. Sean Hawksford, who’s married to their eldest, Jessica, was the man many downtown-goers have seen recently with the homemade sandwich board asking for housing. “Sell to a local,” his Sharpied sign challenged passersby. Exhausted by the same competitive market his in-laws experienced, which he refers to as a “continuous panic attack,” the local business owner and soon-to-be father took to the streets.
“Bozeman … was a small town really recently and people still have that idea in their mind that you can serve the community and afford to live here,” Hawksford said. “This is the way things should be and it’s a shame that they’re not. But sentiment doesn’t make decisions for people in the same way that the market makes decisions for people and truly what we’re seeing is the market having the final say.”
Despite some backlash, Hawksford says most people he’s crossed paths with during his sandwich-board odyssey were kind and understanding. Indeed, many of them are in the same boat.
“There’s a difference between moving to a place because it’s an attractive place to live and moving to a place because it’s literally where you belong and all of the things that make you, you,” Hawksford said. “It’s an understandable desire to want to live in an attractive place, but it’s not a good enough reason to move somewhere cool to displace someone who belongs there.”
One of the leads Sean and Jessica received through the house-hunting campaign was from a man selling a home on the west side of town. His son had passed away in an accident on Homestake Pass last November and the son’s wife and three girls were moving out. Hawksford’s impression was that the father, in lieu of mitigating the chaos of realty, wanted to sell his son’s home to a young family.
“I think it worked out for both of us,” Hawksford said. “I like to think that we kind of helped him. I know what happened was more than just a cold-hard transaction, which is virtually what every other house offer we went into felt like, and I think the really gratifying thing is we have a really unique story to tell.”
“Just because our problem is solved doesn’t mean we feel a lot better,” Hawksford added. “But it shows that we’re powerful to each other and we kind of need each other.”
Back at YAA camp, the Hawthornes believe that in life, everyone is searching for something in their soul, a search that COVID-19 has deepened as people reevaluate what matters to them.
They’re drawn to the beauty and healthy lifestyle they experience on a drive through Yellowstone National Park or down Cottonwood Canyon Road, but they also picture the life their family would have, backdropped by the Bridger Mountains and open spaces that many have called home for decades.
“I think some people will find it to be what they hoped,” Andrea said.
Outside, the snowcapped peaks of the Bridgers are visible from her dining room window. “I think other people will find it to not fill the hole that they’re still looking for.”