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Comprehensive Master Plan to rely on community input

How can Lincoln develop without losing its identity and changing into something the community itself won't recognize?

That has been, in one way or another, the core conundrum in various efforts to make plans for Lincoln's future over the last 50-plus years. It remains at the heart of the upcoming effort to develop a comprehensive community master plan for the town.

The recently formed Master Plan Steering Committee began the process of tackling that issue during a Zoom meeting Nov. 22 with Freestone Development president Dustin de Yong to discuss his approach to creating a plan for Lincoln. Freestone was selected as the contractor to develop the Community Master Plan in late October.

The consultant selection process

Last summer, Envision Lincoln and the Lincoln Valley Chamber of Commerce began working with Lewis and Clark County, Heart of the Rockies Foundation and the Montana Business Assistance Connection on grant funding for development of a master plan for Lincoln.

The need for a master plan became clear in 2020 as efforts to implement goals developed during the Envision Lincoln meetings, such as in-town trails, faced unexpected hurdles and governmental requirements.

"There is a lot more planning that needs to be done if we are going to be able to get funding and support from needed partners...if we are going to move this forward," Envision Lincoln coordinator Karyn Good said in August of 2020.

By March of this year, the success of a grant application to the Montana Main Street program, a matching $2000 grant from MBAC and an added $2,000 in matching funds from Heart of the Rockies and $2,000 from a private donor provided enough funding to hire a professional consulting firm to develop such a plan. *(Updated from original to accurately identify the donation breakdown.)

In June Lewis and Clark County - which submitted the Montana Main Street grant application on Lincoln's behalf - approved a Request for Proposals that went out at the end of that month. By August, they had received five responses from firms in Montana, Washington and Indiana.

A Selection Committee composed of Good, Lincoln Valley Chamber of Commerce President Laurie Welty, Anne Pichette of MBAC and County Grant Manager Ann McCauley narrowed the field to their top two choices. After some extra questioning they went with Freestone Development, Inc. of Helena for the job.

Good said two things set Freestone apart. First, was the outreach strategy de Yong laid out. Good said he believed that public outreach and having a process in which the public could comment, share input and provide insight was extremely important. Second was the fact that de Yong understands that the "cookie cutter' approach the other firms leaned toward won't work for Lincoln, which has some unique challenges.

"Right out of the gate they established that message," she said, adding "Dustin had genuine interest in doing this project for Lincoln."

Freestone Development

Dustin de Yong, who will serve as the lead consultant on the project, worked as an Industry Development Officer for the State of Montana before founding Freestone, which focuses on pre-development planning, feasibility and analytics.

"When I got into consulting, I really wanted to help Montanans uplift Montana," de Yong told the BVD, "But rural Montana really has the keys to my heart. There is a lot of potential for communities to craft their own futures. I think that takes some leadership and some action."

De Yong also brings a personal connection to Lincoln through his wife's uncle, who has a cabin near the Blackfoot River near town.

"We find ourselves going over the hill now and then," he said. "It's a good place."

Freestone brings two other independent consulting partners to the table as well: Dick Anderson Construction and the Century Companies. He said he reached out to those two constructions companies specifically because of their work in rural Montana and because they are outstanding, credible companies.

Kevin Myhre of the Century Companies, a former chief of police and city administrator for Lewistown, brings expertise in civil engineering and public administration to the table, while Josh Devos, vice president of Dick Anderson Construction will help provide insight into the feasibility of community infrastructure, cost estimates and knowledge of factors affecting development in a small town.

Unlike firms that would bring in architectural or engineering companies, de Yong said he went directly to the construction companies to help streamline the process and to focus on projects that will deliver returns to the community in the short term. He said they can provide Lincoln with some "low-hanging fruit" and solutions the town can act upon quickly and without unnecessary monetary expense, which was a concern since Lincoln is undergoing master planning as an unincorporated town without a tax base.

The Steering Committee

The steering committee, set up in early November, includes Good, Welty, Pichette and McCauley, as well as Victor Johnson, Jill Frisbee, Roger Dey and Dani Cyr.

The local members of the Steering Committee were selected by Good and Welty, with input from the county to ensure it included people with capacity but who weren't simply friends of Good and Welty, nor people with a single-minded agenda for the town's future.

"We're trying find people who are very involved in the community in one way or another," said Good.

She said Johnson "ticked a lot of boxes" due to his involvement with the Ponderosa Snow Warriors and his service on both the Lincoln Valley Chamber of Commerce Board and the Lincoln Parks Board. He also has conversations with many people who don't necessarily trust the idea of master planning and will help play devil's advocate for the committee.

Jill Frisbee was asked to join as a long-time resident and local business owner who has interactions with lots of people in town.

Dani Cyr is a lifelong resident and teacher at the school who has had an interest in getting involved and who plans to make a life here in Lincoln.

"We need those young people who plan to live their lives in Lincoln to start getting interested in investing their time in community planning," Good said.

They asked Dey to be a part of it as a downtown business owner and the publisher of the local newspaper.

Good said Welty, who was also on the contractor selection committee, also made sense as a steering committee member herself, as the president of the Chamber of Commerce and as someone who has been very involved in the community planning process from the outset but had questions about Envision Lincoln.

"I liked having Laurie involved," Good said. "She's one of those people who isn't a big Envision Lincoln fan. She looked at that downtown rendering and she didn't like it. I think it's important to have those people involved in it."

McAuley, as county grants coordinator, and Pichette with MBAC, which provided matching funds for the grants to hire Freestone, also have an interest in ensuring the community planning process will be something that will be successful due to local consensus.

"The steering committee is diverse enough that we have the ability to reach out and get feedback from a lot of circles we haven't heard from in a while," Welty said.

That downtown design image

The idea of a community master plan has been met with mixed reactions in Lincoln.

In February of 2020 Envision Lincoln, hoping to breathe new life into community involvement and planning discussions, hosted an open house that included a pair of renderings of Lincoln that featured ideas for possible changes to the downtown area.

The response to those images was generally positive at the open house itself, but it turns out they were not necessarily a hit and may have even fueled skepticism about the goals of Envision Lincoln.

"I disliked it intensely immediately," said Welty, who attended the open house.

Good admitted they failed on the messaging when it came to those renderings, which included a whole slew of design ideas, many of which weren't practical for Lincoln. The image were intended to get people to think about the different possibilities for the revitalization of Lincoln, and what they would or wouldn't want to see. Instead, many people who saw the images published in the BVD came away with the impression they were a finished plan rather than a starting point for discussion.

Despite her early personal misgivings about Envision Lincoln and dislike of those renderings, Welty is playing a leading role in the Lincolns community master planning process.

"I think people should know there is no hidden agenda, no preconceived ideas that are trying to be pushed upon people," she said. "The process will truly be from the ground up. It is going to give every single person who wants a voice the ability to have a voice."

"The whole point of this is to get people to come and talk about what they want it to look like... and why," Good said.

"I'm not one to change for changes sake. There has to be some broad consensus and getting our identity down, if we can arrive at that, in order to plan for the future," said Welty, who doesn't believe revitalization means someone driving through Lincoln won't recognize it. "In the end we should have a plan that establishes what Lincoln is, what the people here feel we are, what that would look like, what kind of design or vibe you get from town."

Local participation is key

"A comprehensive community master plan will only be as good as the community effort put behind it," de Yong said in response to a question from the selection committees, and there should be plenty of opportunities for the local participation and feedback that will be essential to creating a community-backed plan.

For the time being, Steering Committee members are working to compile information that will provide insight into the community, such as past community resource work and plans, reports, maps and other historic documentation. They're also in the initial stages of community outreach through friends and family.

"We're doing information gathering over the next six weeks to two months," de Yong said. "The community can expect to see some sort of a community event like a town hall that will be open to the public."

The meeting will inform folks about the planning process and gather feedback. Plans call for surveys to be distributed at the meeting to gather data and public opinion on what Lincoln residents would like to see, or not see, in the master plan. The survey will also go out both digitally and physical through the mail or in the BVD or both, as part of the effort to gather as much information as possible from residents, including snowbirds who have left Montana for the winter.

As common themes emerge from the survey responses and other feedback, de Yong said they will ask community members to "really step up" and dive into those themes through focus groups that will provide insight and expertise on what needs to be addressed within them.

The importance of community identity

In the end de Yong said the success of Lincoln's community master planning hinges on community identity.

As a native of the Flathead, he understands how a community can lose its historic identity as it grows and develops.

"What makes communities like Lincoln their history and their heritage; the people who make up those communities, especially those who have been there for decades or two or more generations, who have that attachment to what it took to build that community," he said. "Those things are lost when you go the way of Whitefish or some of the Colorado towns ,or Jackson, Wyoming. You start to lose those things that attracted people to those towns in the first place. There's something beyond the beautiful landscape. There's something intrinsic in the nature of the community and the spirit that lives there that's drawing those people in. You have to be mindful of protecting that."

So, what is Lincoln's core identity? With a history of people have moving in and out with regularity, and only a few who have put down multi-generational roots, that question could generate a wide variety of answers.

Throughout its history, Lincoln has been variously a mining boom town, a ranching community, a recreational forest getaway, a sawmill and timber town, a drinking town, a hideout for misanthropes and most recently an art destination.

As Lincoln looks to a future increasingly dependent on outdoor recreation, tourism and the service industry, figuring out a marketable identity may be the most pressing challenge.

"We don't want Lincoln to change" has been a recurring mantra here since at least 1970, when the town voted down incorporation even as the Anaconda Company was planning a major molybdenum mine in the Mike Horse area. That mine never came to fruition, nor did the McDonald Gold Project in the 90's and by and large, Lincoln hasn't seen glaring change.

"How do we protect that? How do we grow, evolve, develop, but not change? That has everything to do with identity," de Yong Said. "How Lincoln brands itself and how it develops is going to pivot on maintaining that future identity. Using the past as a tool to reflect upon the current and future identity is a powerful mechanism."

Editors Note: Full disclosure, I am a member of the steering committee for the Master Plan, and yes, I refer to myself in the third person in this. story. While it could be seen as a conflict of interest to report on something I'm directly involved in, I feel it's justified to help keep everyone up to date, and I'm fresh out of local reporters.


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