A portion of a ‘Come Home Montana’ mailer sent to Montana college graduates by the state Department of Commerce in May 2022. The pictured mailer was provided to MTFP by a recipient who retrieved it from their recycle bin.

Internal emails indicate that staff at the Montana Department of Commerce have monitored a notable volume of public frustration with aspects of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Come Home Montana marketing campaign over the last year, in some cases expressing sympathy with concerns about the minimal diversity represented in the campaign’s imagery and the effort’s perceived insensitivity to Montana’s burgeoning affordability crisis.

The emails, provided to Montana Free Press through a public records request, also show that the department decided in coordination with the governor’s office to avoid personalized exchanges with members of the public who communicated concerns about the campaign. Instead, department staff responded to critical emails with a three-paragraph form letter.

“I heard back from the Govs Comms office,” Deputy Director Adam Schafer wrote in a June 2021 email thread where department staff discussed how to respond to criticism of the campaign. “Their direction is that they as a general rule do not engage with negative social media posts, so we should not. However, for emails we receive, they did approve this generic response that we can use as a reply.”

That response, in full, reads: 

Thank you for your comments regarding the Come Home Montana campaign here at the Montana Department of Commerce. Your comments are important to us. The Governor developed this campaign to encourage Montanans who have moved to other states, to come back home to Montana.

For too long, Montana’s most valuable export has been our kids and grandkids. Our quality of life is second to none, and we’re reminding former residents of what a great place Montana is to live, work, and raise a family. We’re growing opportunities and creating an environment so Montanans can thrive and prosper.

The campaign encourages Montanans who have relocated to other states to return to Montana to work remotely, start a business here, or take advantage of job opportunities across the state’s industries. We hope that you consider sharing the comehomemontana.com website with Montanan’s you know who live out-of-state, encouraging them to come back home!

The Come Home Montana campaign continues a long-time effort by Gianforte, a Republican who entered politics after building a technology company in Bozeman. In 2015, before his first, unsuccessful bid for governor in 2016, he launched a Bring our Families Back tour that promoted telecommuting as a way for Montana kids to return without giving up well-paid out-of-state careers. The idea was a major theme in his successful 2020 bid as well, with his campaign’s Montana Comeback Plan lamenting that “Our kids and grandkids have become one of our largest exports.”

By the time Gianforte took up the reins of state government in 2021, though, the COVID-19 pandemic had already transformed Montana’s economic landscape, with pandemic-era migration packing many Montana communities full of new arrivals and their money, consequently driving housing prices out of reach for some existing residents.

Urban centers like Bozeman and Kalispell have each added thousands of new residents and seen housing prices surge to record highs over the last two years. Even some rural Montana communities, many of which have historically struggled with population decline, have reported notable growth rates. A poll conducted earlier this year found that more than three-quarters of Montanans consider “lack of affordable housing” a “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem for the state.

Under Gianforte’s leadership the commerce department launched the Come Home Montana campaign last year, publishing a comehomemontana.com website, buying social media advertisements and sending out multiple waves of promotional mailers. As of late April, the department had spent about $701,000 on the effort, a spokesperson said. A round of mailers that month was sent to approximately 122,000 Montana college graduates.

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‘Come Home Montana’ push collides with housing angst

The Department of Commerce has spent $700,000 trying to encourage Montana college grads to return to the state as part of its “Come Home Montana” campaign. Some recipients interviewed by MTFP reported that the outreach sparked feelings of fondness for their former home, but others wondered where they would live amid Montana’s surging popularity and…

As MTFP reported previously, reaction to the campaign among its target audience has been mixed. Some mailer recipients told MTFP in interviews earlier this year that it successfully conjured a sense of yearning for the Last Best Place. Others said they worried that encouraging more people to compete for Montana’s limited housing supplies could ultimately make it impossible for them to move back themselves.

The internal emails indicate commerce department staff were aware of polarized response to the campaign almost from its outset, receiving inquiries from people who were considering relocating to Montana as well as people who took issue with the effort.

“So far I believe the bulk of the emails have been from residents declaring their dissatisfaction that we are running a campaign to drive up the housing market,” Marketing Bureau Chief Marlee Iverson wrote in a July 2021 email discussing the program.

One commenter, Jay Turmell, wrote the department last September, describing himself as a Montana native and University of Montana alumnus who lives in California “because I like having enough money to pay my bills.”

“I understand you may have good intentions, but if you care about Montana at all, you’ll stop talking about it,” Turmell wrote.

“The more you market Montana, the more people will move to Montana. Traffic, pollution, trash, crime, drugs ad infinitum,” he also wrote. “Montana needs more of that like we need cancer.”

“So far I believe the bulk of the emails have been from residents declaring their dissatisfaction that we are running a campaign to drive up the housing market.”

Commerce department Marketing Bureau Chief Marlee Iverson

The commerce department emails released to MTFP show agency staff responding to sincere inquiries from people interested in relocating with additional information, such as pointers to the Montana MLS real estate portal and job search resources available through the state Department of Labor & Industry. Where people expressed specific interest in particular communities, department staff passed their names along to contacts at local chambers of commerce for further follow-up. 

The emails also show the department grappling with how to address the negative feedback. In one June 2021 email exchange, department staff discussed screenshots of comment threads attached to Come Home Montana advertisements on Facebook.

“Can’t afford to live there. You need to bring your money with you,” one commenter wrote. “I would love to but no work, high taxes and real estate values prohibit it! When you fix those things let me know,” wrote another. “AM I A JOKE TO YOU??” wrote a third, who described herself as a Bozeman native who “can’t afford to live in my hometown anymore because 1 bedroom ‘houses’ go for $700K there.”

“That’s more negativity than I was expecting,” Jennifer Pelej, the department’s tourism and business development division administrator, wrote in the internal email exchange.

Agency staff and the department’s marketing agency, Hoffman York, discussed addressing the comments with a “community management” approach, but appear to have abandoned that idea as a result of the “do not engage” directive from the governor’s communications staff. The emails also indicate department staff began providing the form response to critical comments received via email.

In one July 2021 exchange, the department fielded a message from Matt Buyske, who described himself as a U.S. Navy aviator originally from Shelby who was considering moving back to Montana as he approached retirement.

“I, and other fellow Montanans working outside the state, would love nothing more than to come back to Montana and live, but can’t afford to for a multitude of reasons,” he wrote in a lengthy email.

Along with being unsure about his post-Navy career options in Montana, Buyske cited land costs as a barrier to his return, saying he “cannot compete with non-residents’ disposable income on a military salary.” He suggested the state consider developing a program to sell state or federal lands to returning Montanans under a conservation easement.

The department provided Buyske with its form response, which doesn’t acknowledge the affordability concern.

Buyske replied with another message calling it “obvious that you did not read my email or any of the comments on your FaceBook post.” 

“You can’t just say come home and magically all of the Montanans residing out of state will come home,” he continued. “Montanans have the grit and fortitude to make a living wherever they reside. But they are not going to reside somewhere they cannot afford.”

An administrative assistant, Sue Rickman, forwarded that reply to Iverson, the marketing bureau chief, with an expression of sympathy. 

“[W]hen these citizens are responding to our reply then what; they do have valid points that I feel bad to just sweep under the rug,” she wrote. “Is anyone at the helm giving thought to what valid points are being brought up by citizens?”

One exchange included in the internal emails also indicates at least one department staffer was worried about campaign imagery representing minority groups.

“I do want to note that our image selection continues to be limited in showing diversity. That’s just how it is and we are all working to change that,” Iverson wrote in a November email thread discussing mailer design. “Some of the comments that I’m seeing are calling that out,” she added.

“You can’t just say come home and magically all of the Montanans residing out of state will come home. Montanans have the grit and fortitude to make a living wherever they reside. But they are not going to reside somewhere they cannot afford.”

Matt Buyske in an email to the Montana Department of Commerce

It isn’t clear from the emails whether the department modified its mailers to address those concerns. A spokesperson didn’t provide an answer this week to a written question asking if she could point to specific changes the department had made to include more diversity. During the 2020 census, 85% of Montana’s population identified as white and 9.3% as at least partly Native American.

Neither the commerce department nor the governor’s communications office provided a direct response to questions about the form letter’s appropriateness as a response to messages critical of the Come Home effort.

“We’ll continue to keep the focus of the Come Home campaign on encouraging Montanans who have relocated to other states to return here to work remotely, start or expand a business, or take advantage of job opportunities across the state,” department spokesperson Anastasia Burton wrote. “Despite some housing challenges — which are not unique to Montana — our quality of life is good, and we want to remind former residents of what a great place Montana is to work and raise a family.”

“The governor’s focus remains reuniting families, creating greater opportunities here in Montana, and making our communities stronger,” Gianforte Press Secretary Brooke Stroyke said in an email.

Stroyke did acknowledge the state has a “housing supply shortage” and wrote that the governor is working to address the issue by streamlining development permitting and boosting trades education in an effort to expand the state’s construction workforce.

At a press briefing in Gardiner June 17, Gianforte also said his administration has been “working really hard” on the housing issue and expects it to be a major topic of discussion during next year’s legislative session. His office has not yet announced major policy initiatives for the session, which opens in January.

Amanda Eggert contributed reporting.

This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at edietrich@montanafreepress.org.

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Eric DietrichDeputy Editor

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.