Montana State University campus
Credit: Montana State University

Last week, lawmakers from a pair of legislative committees spent hours poring over a list of proposed building projects within the Montana University System. As is often the case in long-range planning discussions, the scope of the requests was vast — funding for fire and heating system upgrades, accessibility improvements, interior renovations, as well as authority to spend privately donated dollars on new facilities for nursing and computer science programs. 

All told, the list penciled out to nearly $400 million, including a trio of university system projects that Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian said target “100-year-old buildings that have never been through a major renovation.” However, Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman, drew lawmakers’ attention during public comment to the notable absence of one item: a new building for Montana State University’s 12-year-old two-year campus, Gallatin College.

The request, Gillette explained, was MSU President Waded Cruzado’s top priority heading into the 2023 Legislature. But the $38 million ask did not appear in Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget proposal in November. Still, Gillette continued, MSU and the Bozeman community have continued to press the issue in conversations with the governor’s office, hence her desire to put it on lawmakers’ radar as they discuss the state’s broader long-range planning package, House Bill 5.

“[Gianforte] asked that we come back to the drawing board and find more community funds, and to my knowledge we’ve done that,” Gillette said. “We’ve now supplied or have a plan to supply and have commitments on behalf of the community to supply half of the funds.”

In interviews with Montana Free Press this week, Cruzado and other leaders in the Gallatin Valley confirmed Gillette’s statement that a solution is in the offing. For Cruzado, securing state funding for the project isn’t just a priority, it’s a “desperate need.”

“I want to make sure that those students have a place to go to receive orientation, if they need materials, if they need information about financial aid, if they need to have, goodness, a warm, healthy meal rather than eating from a vending machine,” Cruzado told MTFP. “These students deserve to receive the same level of service as any student at Montana State University, and they should be treated with the same level of respect that every other two-year student is treated with in the state.”

Since its establishment in 2010, Gallatin College’s enrollment has grown from an initial headcount of 100 students to 750 last fall. The campus’ workforce programs now include aviation, photonics and laser technology, culinary arts, welding, carpentry and phlebotomy, many of them propped up by partnerships with local businesses hungry for skilled new employees. But, Cruzado said, its offerings are scattered across nine locations throughout the Bozeman area, many of them not easily accessible by public transportation.

The lack of a central headquarters for this far-flung campus has become a concern for Gallatin County officials. too. Commissioner Zach Brown said the community has done what it can over the years to assist Gallatin College, in recognition of its contribution to the local economy. In 2013, voters approved a county-wide mill levy dedicating roughly $369,000 a year to support the campus, and county commissioners directed $2 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to Gallatin College in fall 2021 to help fund training programs and child care for students.

Given those past local commitments, and Montana’s current $2 billion budget surplus, Brown said, it’s time for the state to invest in the college’s future. He added the situation in Bozeman now — skyrocketing enrollment on a two-year campus, a lack of adequate infrastructure — is not unlike what Missoula faced a decade ago when the University of Montana requested, and received, state aid for a new Missoula College facility.

“Quite frankly, Gallatin County is the economic engine for southwest Montana and, in some respects, the entire state of Montana at the moment,” Brown said. “Investing in our ability to meet the workforce training and retraining needs of the future is in everyone’s best interest and definitely in the state’s best interest.”

From a business perspective, Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Daryl Schliem said Gallatin College has proven to be a significant asset in generating skilled workers not just for local companies but for employers throughout the state. Schliem recalled that the chamber’s involvement with the campus dates back to its inception, when private financiers and MSU teamed up to launch a culinary hospitality program to meet rising workforce needs. The dam quickly broke loose, he continued, as unmet needs in the heating, electrical and building trades became evident.

Schliem said the absence of MSU’s request from the governor’s budget proposal is particularly frustrating in light of how much Gallatin County contributes to the state’s coffers in taxes and tourism dollars, and how long the community has been highlighting the need. He estimated that over a seven-year span, the $38 million investment would yield a “$1 billion return” — just one of the “many common-sense points” he sees justifying the request. Not meeting the need at Gallatin College, he continued, would be “devastating for the county” and for “the whole state of Montana.”

“There’s no more room to add additional instructors, add more students,” Schliem said. “I mean, we’re going to create such a workforce shortage and a housing shortage by not having the trades to build those houses and not having people to go work in the jobs of the new businesses that [we] have recruited here.”

The importance of the request isn’t lost on Commissioner Christian, who told MTFP via email that he remains “absolutely committed to finding a solution for Gallatin College that will help meet the workforce needs of the community and beyond.” But Christian did note that his office was advised by the administration to focus its efforts on improving and maintaining existing structures — or, as he summarized for lawmakers last week, “renewal and renovation” aimed at clearing the university system’s backlog of deferred maintenance.

The pleas from Cruzado, Brown and other community leaders aren’t going unheard by the governor’s office, either. Responding to a request for comment Friday, spokesperson Brooke Stroyke wrote that Gianforte’s budget was crafted “in consultation with the Board of Regents and the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education” and that his office “remains engaged with Gallatin College and industry partners, as well as legislators as they consider the governor’s budget.” Stoyke also pointed MTFP to Gianforte’s comments during his State of the State address last month directing Montana’s education leaders to be “innovative” and “transformative.”

“Develop partnerships with the private sector,” Gianforte said in his speech. “Don’t be constrained by brick and mortar. And improve education opportunities for all our students.”

In other words, the conversation is ongoing, and Cruzado remains hopeful that Gallatin College will find a place in the Legislature’s funding commitments before the session’s end. If not, she expressed grave concerns about the college’s ability to find adaptable, leasable space to grow in “one of the hottest real estate markets in the state.” Just two months ago, Cruzado said, the campus was eyeing warehouse space for a construction trades program but lost the lease to a higher bidder “at the very last minute.”

“That day we just needed to turn back and tell those students that, unfortunately, we cannot offer the program because literally we don’t have a space for you,” Cruzado said.

This story was updated Feb. 2, 2023 to correctly identify Bozeman Rep. Jane Gillette’s party affiliation.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...