By Tim Eberly and Tim Leeds
It was another difficult year for towns on the Hi-Line, and our readers' selections of the top 10 local stories of 2001 reflect that. Given 28 possible stories to pick from, readers focused on the blows to Havre's business community and the rippling effects of a worsening drought.
But readers also selected stories that provide hope, such as the Legislature's approval of a bill that could mean the eventual widening of U.S. Highway 2, converting it into a possible economic corridor. They loved the story of teenager Ryan Chagnon, who is working his way to recovery after a life-shattering vehicle crash.
Local readers also acknowledged some changes in the status quo, with the election of Republican Bob Rice to mayor in a traditionally Democratic town, the restructing of Havre schools, and the appointment of Alex Capdeville as chancellor at Montana State University-Northern.
Here are the top 10 local stories, as selected by our readers:
1. Havre loses BNSF headquarters.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway announced early in October that it had moved its Montana Division headquarters out of Havre and into Billings. That followed a Sept. 2 announcement that the railroad was streamlining its operations.
Gus Melonas, the railroad's Seattle-based spokesman, said in October that moving the headquarters was not expected to change the daily operations of the railway in Havre. The office was moved, he said, because Billings is more centrally located under new operating systems. The railway changed from 23 to 13 operating divisions in the restructuring.
Area residents and officials said worries that the relocation would impact the local economy likely is the reason readers selected it as the top story. The relocation cost Have two or three jobs.
"Havre seems to be shrinking all the time," said Havre resident Donna Hamblock. "We don't have too much to bring people to Havre."
Hamblock, who farmed for most of her life, said losing the headquarters on top of the economic problems caused by the drought and low agriculture prices magnifies its importance.
Hill County Commissioner Doug Kaercher said people fear that the headquarters relocation could mean other cutbacks in BNSF's local operations are coming.
"I guess it would stem back to the concern that BNSF is moving out of Havre, which certainly is a concern for us, for the economy," he said. "Our indication from (the railroad) is it's just a restructure of administration and won't impact the community too much."
Melonas said the actual impacts have been small. Havre lost a few management personnel because of the move, he said, but most are still in town and the reorganization didn't affect any union personnel, who make up more than 90 percent of the railway's Havre work force.
Venessa Jackson of Havre said she doesn't know how much moving the office will really impact Havre, but it doesn't help people's attitudes.
"It hurts morale when we hear of something moving out," she said.
Maureen Weatherly of Havre said all she seems to hear about is Havre losing businesses and jobs.
"It seems like every time you turn around, they're closing something or moving something," she said.
Frank DeRosa, of the board of Havre Beneath the Streets and the Railroad Museum, said the history of railroad headquarters in Havre goes back nearly to the turn of the century. Havre lost the Great Northern Railway headquarters to Great Falls in 1928, he said, but regained it in 1970 when the Great Northern merged with other railroads to form Burlington Northern.
2. Drought enters fourth year.
Four years of drought have brought problems to the Havre area ranging from low grain production and thirsty livestock to restrictions on watering in towns and rural areas.
Clint Greytak of the Farm Service Agency office in Havre said the drought caused one of the worst years in many years for low yields, causing many ag producers to file claims on their crop insurance.
Penny Nystrom of Erickson-Baldwin Insurance said almost everybody has filed claims on their crops.
"It's bad," she said. "It's going to get worse, I bet, the way things are going."
Water restrictions were in place in various areas from western Hill County to Chinook. For the Hill County Water District, the shortage got worse when the level of Fresno Reservoir dropped below the pipe the district uses to pump water out. The district had water restrictions in place for most of the summer for most of rural western Hill County and the towns it serves.
Chinook also put in water restrictions when the level of the Milk River dropped, causing concerns for its water supply. Havre put temporary restrictions in place to reduce the amount of water it took out of the river until Chinook's situation improved.
One line of work, well-drilling, has flourished from the water shortage. Drilling companies are scrambling to fill back orders for wells, which provide water for livestock. Some wells also had to be drilled for household use.
"It's really devastating," said Tom Montgomery of the FSA. "There's hardly any chance at all to have any crops if we don't get any moisture. We're hoping to get some moisture in the spring, though."
Some older farmers and ranchers say the last time they remember a drought this bad was in the 1930s the drought that produced the Dust Bowl.
3. Legislature passes Senate Bill 3, instructing the state to obtain federal funding to widen U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes.
After negotiation and compromise, state Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, R-Glasgow, obtained the Legislature's approval of his bill.
Kitzenberg argued that widening the highway is necessary both for safety and to stimulate the economy on the Hi-Line. He argued that traffic volume had shifted dramatically to the southern part of the state after Interstate 90 was built, and that improvements to Highway 2 should be made to create geographic fairness in the state.
The bill instructs MDT to seek special congressional appropriations that don't require a state match to widen Highway 2.
Kitzenberg spent the summer and fall accusing MDT of trying to subvert his bill by coming up with a formal interpretation of the bill the permits MDT to divert funds and delay construction on Highway 2.
MDT director Dave Galt denied the accusations.
Congress has approved, and President Bush has signed into law, the first $2 million for the $1.4 billion project. Of that, $1 million is for a feasibility study and $1 million for construction.
Kitzenberg says the feasibility money should be used for an environmental study of widening the stretch between Havre and Chinook.
But MDT says that if the feasibility study is done, that will delay its plans to widen that section of a 40-foot two-lane highway. The department said it wants to collect public opinion about the issue before deciding where to use the money.
4. Havre Public Schools adopts restructuring; closes Devlin School.
The Havre School Board in April approved a plan to restructure local schools. The administration cited a projected budget shortfall of more than $650,000 as the reason for restructuring. The projected shortfall was caused by declining enrollment, lack of state funding increases to match rising costs of utilities and supplies, and the need to invest in an employee compensation package.
The district closed Devlin School and reorganized the remaining three elementary schools into grade-level schools, with all kindergarten and first-graders attending Highland Park School, all second- and third-graders attending Lincoln-McKinley and all fourth- and fifth-graders attending Sunnyside.
It eliminated 11 teaching positions and cut classes at the middle and high schools. The French program and law-related education disappeared from the curriculum. The district adopted a 23 percent reduction for supplies and equipment at the high school.
Other actions included eliminating the $7 per day spent on student meals during extracurricular trips and instituting a $30 "pay-to-play" fee to participate in extracurricular activities.
The board placed a nearly $175,000 mill levy for the high school on the ballot. The voters approved it, with 71 percent in favor.
5. Closing of Havre businesses, including Park Hotel and restaurant, Taco Time, Wooden Heart, Jitters, Java 2 Java.
One of only two coffee houses in Havre, Java to Java, closed its doors just three days before the Sept. 11 attacks and the economic downturn the devastation spurred.
Late in October, Java to Java's chief competitor, Jitter's Coffee House, closed for good after struggling for several months.
The business's owners said their failure could be blamed in part on the sluggish economy of the Hi-Line, strained by drought and low ag prices. In fact, four other Havre businesses shut down since July: the Wooden Heart gift shop, the Park Restaurant and Hotel, and the Taco Time fast-food restaurant. The Park Hotel has since reopened under different ownership.
Around the time of Jitter's demise, in October, a Sam Goody music store opened in the Holiday Village Shopping Center, offering a glimpse of the resiliency of Havre in a time of economic hardship. A new coffee shop in the shopping center is also among several new businesses.
"We've done great since we opened up," said Dave Young, store manager at Sam Goody. "We've beaten the forecasted numbers."
6. Bob Rice defeats Mike Shortell in Havre mayor's race.
On Nov. 6, Republican Bob Rice won the mayoral race in Havre, an overwhelmingly Democratic town. The first Republican mayor since the mid-1970s, Rice handily defeated Democrat Mike Shortell, a former Havre police chief with 56 percent of the vote, 1,361 to 1,039.
Since his victory, Rice has become a fixture at City Council and city committee meetings. With the support of Havre's department heads, he is sponsoring a contest to create a new city logo.
"I'm pleased and I'm looking forward to getting to work," Rice said Friday. He will be sworn in to the $19,000-a-year job at the next City Council meeting, on Jan. 7. "I have several things on my agenda."
A former naval officer who grew up in Havre, Rice also ran in the 1997 general election against Mayor Phyllis Leonard without the support of the Republican Central Committee and lost by 36 votes.
7. Ryan Chagnon's accident and recovery.
Ryan Chagnon spent four months in a Great Falls hospital recovering from an April car accident that pinned the Havre High student facedown in the dirt, unable to breath, for 10 minutes.
In August, Chagnon, a former Blue Pony wrestler and now an 18-year-old senior, returned to Havre and has continued rehabilitation. In a coma for four days after the crash, Chagnon suffered traumatic brain injuries that have affected his speech, memory and coordination.
"He's come a million miles from where he was," Chagnon's mother, Ginger, said this morning. "He's walking on his own now. He's had to relearn everything."
Slated to graduate this year, Chagnon took three classes last semester, spending a half-day at school. When his final semester starts in January, Chagnon will take five classes in order to graduate. About three times a week, he also attends wrestling practice to watch his former teammates grapple, and also traveled with the team to a holiday tournament in Great Falls two weeks ago.
Four times a week, Chagnon attends speech therapy while once a week he goes to physical therapy. When a reporter asked about Chagnon's future plans, Ginger relayed the question to her son.
Without pause, Ryan Chagnon said, "Vet."
"He wants to be a veterenarian or a forensic scientist," Ginger said. "That's what his plans were before the accident."
8. New company buys Holiday Village Shopping Center.
Security National Properties, of Eureka, Calif., took possession of the Havre Holiday Village Shopping Center on Jan. 12, and announced expectations of filling the shopping center within 18 months. The previous owner was Ocwen Corp. of Florida.
The purchase came after nearly eight years of troubles for the shopping center. Traveler's Insurance foreclosed on the property in 1993 when its owners fell behind on their payments. It held Holiday Village in receivership while legal issues, including back taxes and ownership of the land the property is on, were resolved.
Once those issues were resolved, Ocwen bought the property in September 1999, retaining Westfield Properties as the manager.
One of the first changes Security made was to make the management local, helping Korb create her company and assume direct control of the property.
Security hasn't had quite the success its representative, Fred Griffith, projected. He said Holiday Village would be 80 percent full by Christmas. But manager Tiffany Korb, of TK Management Co., said Friday that eight new leases have been signed while two stores have left the shopping center. Security has many proposals to other businessess on the table, she said.
"There's always prospects, they're always moving forward," she said.
9. New chancellor at MSU-N.
Alex Capdeville announced on May 17 that he had accepted the permanent position as chancellor.
Capdeville was named chancellor for a two-year term in September 2000 while the search for a permanent chancellor was launched. He requested at the time that he not be called interim chancellor.
Geoffrey Gamble, selected as president of Montana State University after Capdeville became temporary chancellor, held a meeting at Northern to collect comments about who should lead Northern in the future. Students, faculty members, staffers and community members told Gamble that they wanted Capdeville hired for the permanent position.
Faculty and staff presented Gamble with a document signed by more than 100 university employees asking him to appoint Capdeville to the job.
Capdeville, a native of Opheim, has long ties to Northern and Havre. He taught at Havre High School in the 1970s after attending Northern. Before coming back to Havre, he was president of the Helena College of Technology for many years.
10. Area residents respond to help victims of 9-11 attacks.
Though far away from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, many area residents participated in fund-raising campaigns to help victims of the attacks.
Under the coordination of Havre resident Bobbie Jo Lawrence and Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette, a Walk for Peace in Havre on Oct. 13 raised $3,566 for those affected by the attacks. More than 200 T-shirts were sold during the event, which included one-mile and three-mile walks around town. All proceeds went to the United Way September 11th Fund.
"It was a nice effort on all our parts," Lawrence said today. "For our community, I think it was really good."
Another Havre native, Carol Gabrielson, raised $1,375 by selling patriotic pins and donated $1,225 to the American Red Cross relief fund. The rest went to local charities.
Gabrielson sold the commerative pins to people in New Zealand and Canada, and to residents in more than 25 states. She sold more than 100 pins at $2 apiece to residents in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
"Those two states were the biggest after Montana by far," Gabrielson, 34, said today. "I made over 1,000 of them but I gave a lot of them away."
Many other residents and organizations sponsored their own efforts in the town, where American flags and patriotic pins and ribbons were the norm.