“Powell County Playground” By Perry Backus

January 1, 2006

Article from the Missoulian, posted April 23, 2006

“Powell County Playground” By Perry Backus

It’s not every man who gets to handpick his neighbors.

But then again, it’s not every man who can afford to buy a sprawling Montana cattle ranch and then develop an $80 Million exclusive subdivision with amenities that include an 18-hole golf course, a 7,000-square-foot fishing lodge, and a large fitness center in a pristine valley where only cows used to roam.

Bill Foley isn’t every man.

The chairman and CEO of the country’s largest title insurance company – in 2004 Fidelity National Financial’s revenues were nearly $8.3 billion – Foley’s friends call him a visionary.

He built the title insurance business from scratch. Since then, he’s also chaired the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardees, started a successful line of wines at his Foley Estates Vineyard and become the largest individual shareholder in Big Mountain at Whitefish.

Foley’s a man who knows how to get things done.

His newest vision includes a signature golf course wrapping around a collection of up to 200 strategically scattered homes in the middle of the 80,000-acre Rock Creek Cattle Co. ranch just north of the small town of Deer Lodge. Foley purchased the ranch with a consortium of partners in 2004.

Earth-moving equipment is already carving out the Tom Doak-designed course, which promises to feature views of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness and Flint Range. Down along Rock Creek, workers are busy erecting the new fishing lodge and several of the large cabins where the subdivision’s first residents will dwell.

Someday soon, Foley will begin interviewing some of the first few homeowners – who will likely spend a few months each year enjoying the scenery, playing some golf, perhaps fishing a bit or just enjoying the Western allure of a working cattle ranch.

This isn’t your typical subdivision. Foley promises there won’t be high-pressure sales people hovering about hoping to make that next sale.

“We’re not trying to get the last dollar,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s really more about the people who’ll be part of this.”

And to make sure that happens, Foley plans to visit with every single one before anyone signs on the dotted line.

“It is a membership committee of one,” he said.

While Foley said the people who buy into his idea may be different from the folks who call the nearby town of Deer Lodge home, the new neighbors will be low-key and very capable of enjoying Montana’s Western heritage.

“We don’t want a bunch of showboats,” Foley said. “We’re going to be looking for basic good people.”

Memberships will come in different degrees. Some will choose to buy one of the pre-built cabins. Others will build their own homes on carefully laid out lots designed to provide a sense of privacy. And still others will simply purchase a membership that will allow access to the golf course, rentals and other amenities.
Many of the members will probably be friends of a friend. Foley has 40 partners in the ownership of the ranch. He owns 60 percent.

“They are all friends of mine,” he said. “I’m sure that they’ll know two or three other people who will be interested. We’re not going to have a big advertisement program. It’s all going to be very, very low key.

“We’d also like to get some local people up there,” Foley said.

Foley plans to continue a cattle operation on the ranch. At the urging of his ranch manager, he did pare down the number of bison on the place. In their stead, he’d like to get a few longhorns – in part to honor his great-grandfather, who trailed that breed from Texas to Colorado.

Down in the valley, in the small town of Deer Lodge, people are wondering what the expensive development will mean to their community.

Up to this point, the Deer Lodge Valley has missed most of the rapid development that’s occurring in areas along the Continental Divide. Powell County’s population dropped by 109 from 2000 to 2005, according to U.S. Census figures. Some claim it’s because of the stigma of being part of the country’s largest Superfund cleanup. Others point to the prison.

Whatever the reason, there’s many living in and around the town who don’t particularly care to see change come too quickly. After watching the population explosions in places like Ravalli, Missoula and Gallatin counties, some Powell County residents have even taken the unheralded step of asking to be zoned.

Most of the northern end of the county is zoned for larger tracts. In some areas, the smallest tract that can be created is 160 acres. The southern end of the valley remains zoned for one-acre lots.

“People in some parts of our county made a conscious decision that they don’t want to become the next Helena Valley or Whitefish,” said Bill Mattice, Powell County Planning Board president. “They did what many people around the state loathe – they asked for zoning.

“We all realize that we can’t stop growth, but we can manage it,” Mattice said.

The Rock Creek Cattle Co. subdivision was developed under the county’s guidelines, which included requirements to set aside portions of the ranch under conservation easements in exchange for the opportunity to cluster development around the fishing lodge enclave. Part of the land set aside includes the hillsides visitors see when visiting Deer Lodge’s historic Grant-Kohrs Ranch.

The development is designed to be non-intrusive. It’s tucked away inside the large ranch. The public won’t even know it’s there, Foley said.

“There won’t be homes on top of hills. People won’t be able to see it … we wanted this to be environmentally friendly,” Foley said. “We wanted to do the right thing.”

That minimalist approach to development carried through to the selection of an architect for the golf course. Tom Doak is known for his ability to work within the confines of the landscape.

“He’s a minimalist,” said Foley, an avid golfer himself. In fact, Golf Digest put him in with the top five executive golfers in the world in 2004. “I wanted to see a minimum of amount of dirt moved Š that’s why I picked him.”

Doak, the principal designer of Michigan-based Renaissance Golf, learned his trade in the British Isles, where he was taken by the naturalness of the courses there.

“Most of those were built before 1930 and before they had heavy equipment,” he said. “They were designed to take advantage of the landscape.”

In designing the 18-hole course at the Rock Creek Ranch, Doak took that same approach.

“If it weren’t for all the rock on the ground, we probably would have had to do very little to shape the course,” Doak said. “It really looks more like the sand dune type of course than anything else I’ve seen in Montana. We would have spent $500,000 shaping a course to look like it. As it is, we’ll probably spend $1 million getting all the rock out.”

“This kind of course wouldn’t have been built 20 years ago,” he said. “It would have just been too expensive to create.”

In a county where the median family income is almost $36,000, that kind of expense is hard to fathom. There’s a general hope the construction and influx of new people will somehow benefit the locals.

“We’re seeing some enthusiasm downtown,” said Powell County Commissioner Dwight O’Hara. “All the retail stores are full and the economy is starting to increase from the ground up. As commissioners, we’re certainly delighted to see the tax base increased.”

The three-member commission works part time to manage the county. Tax revenues aren’t enough to pay for full-time positions. Money to pay for the basic operation of the county is always a concern.

“We’re very dependent on Sun Mountain Lumber and its 300 employees,” O’Hara said. “They are critical to our economy. The fact that they have to keep going further and further away for timber is a huge concern.”

Up to this point, there hasn’t been very much development in the county, but Deer Lodge Mayor Jim Magone thinks that may be ready to change. He draws that conclusion from his experience in Livingston and the departure of Burlington Northern. The railroad’s departure left many in the small town in despair – worried the community would dry up and blow away.

And then people from other states discovered the Paradise Valley.

“There was a general uproar when they began moving in,” remembered Magone. “Without the out-of-staters, that town would have had a hard time surviving. No one really wants to accept change, but it is a part of life.”

“I think it’s just going to be important for all of us to work together to help guide how that change will occur,” he said. “We just need to do our best to plan it out so we don’t have problems down the road.”

Not everyone is happy to see outsiders moving in and changing the makeup of the Deer Lodge Valley.

“It’s disturbing to me and a lot of other people when outsiders come in and drive up prices of these ranches,” Mattice said. “It’s no longer possible to pay for these places with the kind of money you can make from raising cattle. It just won’t pencil out. That’s disturbing to me.”

There’s going to be some jobs, especially during the construction phase on the Rock Creek Ranch. But after that, Mattice doubts there will be much financial benefit.

“It’s going to be one very small part of the mix in our economy,” he said. “They’re going to live in the middle of 25,000 acres of private land. They’ll fly in, go out to their places and maybe once in a while they’ll come in for groceries. I just don’t see much of an economic impact.”

On the other hand, Mattice said that before Sherm Anderson purchased the sawmill in town, there was a real worry that mill might be shut down.

“That would have killed Deer Lodge,” he said. “We’d be half the size.”

For his part, Foley hopes the town of Deer Lodge won’t change much.

“Deer Lodge is a nice town. We don’t want to change that,” he said. “We started talking with people in Deer Lodge right from the beginning. They were maybe a little skeptical at first. Hopefully, that’s changed.”

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 523-5259 or at pbackus@missoulian.