EAST HELENA —The Asarco manager’s house, sitting in the shadow of the slag pile, has seen better days.
The copper sink in the butler’s pantry is long dry and the cavernous kitchen cupboards are bare, but they hint of luxurious parties in the past. The master bedroom suite, with its sunken bathroom, brick fireplace and bay window, is a silent testament to the wealth of the previous tenants. In the formal dining room, set off by French doors, a simple table is the only furniture that remains in the mansion.
The home’s emptiness reflects a larger hole left in the community after Asarco shuttered the doors of its lead smelting plant here a decade ago, ending more than a century of industrial operations. With its closing, Asarco removed hundreds of jobs that had supported East Helena’s residents, stores and schools. The bustling blue-collar community was left with a Superfund site, a ring of Asarco-owned property cutting off development on the city’s outskirts and a loss of about $1 million annually in tax revenue.
But plans are on the horizon to restore the manager’s house’s faded glory, and to revitalize the town. In particular, as part of Asarco’s bankruptcy settlement, those lands it formerly owned are now part of a trust and are being readied for redevelopment. Community leaders see the blank slates of those properties as opportunities for East Helena to step out of Asarco’s shadow.
To jump start East Helena’s renewal, a group of city, county, state and federal officials, along with development experts, recently gathered with maps and ideas to outline what the city could look like in the future, as it sheds its Superfund status and the stranglehold the Asarco property had on the city.
Wendy Thomi, who works on community involvement for the Environmental Protection Agency, said that at the meeting they focused on three general areas: economic development, historic preservation — like the manager’s house — and open space.
“It was a visioning session, and now we have the tough job before us, which is looking at that and figuring out how to move forward,” Thomi said.
Michael McHugh with the Lewis and Clark County Planning Department sat in on the economic development discussions and said the group first looked at what would be the most beneficial uses for the hundreds of acres of vacant land that abuts East Helena’s west, north and south sides, including the rodeo grounds.
“We talked about whether residential, public lands or commercial uses might work best,” McHugh said.
He added jokingly that they decided East Helena was a prime location for a new microbrewery, with names like EPA bitters and Slag Heap IPA.
“We’ll add that to the list,” said Julie DalSoglio, the EPA’s Montana director, laughing.
One of the promising locations for commercial development, which would aid the city’s tax rolls, is the wide-0pen field behind the historic Manlove cabin across the highway from East Helena. Known as the East Fields, it’s the location where lead-contaminated soils (removed from yards) were deposited. It’s been deep tilled and treated to lower the lead levels, and Dan Norderud, a civil engineer with a local firm, said it has a lot of potential.
“That’s the one with the greatest immediate chance of seeing something on it redevelopment-wise,” Norderud said, noting that it could have rail service, is easily accessed and already is cut into 20-acre parcels.
He added that the vacant Lamping Field, on the opposite side of East Helena and also adjacent to Highway 12, is another prime commercial location. However, it sits atop groundwater plumes of arsenic and selenium, so they first have to figure out the extent of the plumes and decide what to do with the contaminated water. That area is a possible site for a groundwater treatment facility.
Some discussions took place about possibly moving the rodeo grounds, which are across the highway from Lamping Field, since that also could be a prime redevelopment site, McHugh said.
“Maybe we could find a more suitable site for them, like on the Dartman property (north of East Helena), where they’re looking at building a high school with a football stadium,” McHugh said, adding that the economic development group believes the land between East Helena and Canyon Ferry Road probably would be a good location for residential development.
His group also agreed that the current road network needs to be enhanced, and discussed extending Airport Road to Wylie and Lake Helena drives. They also talked about the current infrastructure, like sewer and water, and how East Helena has plenty of capacity in those areas.
“The water, sewer and power right now is at 50 percent of capacity,” noted Terry Myhre, executive director of the Montana Business Assistance Connection. But he was quick to add that East Helena continues to carry a stigma as a Superfund site, and that’s hurting some of the redevelopment effort.
Yet the groups continue to focus on the positive aspects and what they might be able to do even without new development.
Jan Williams, who works for Lewis and Clark County’s Lead Abatement and Education Program, said the open space group talked a lot about better connecting East Helena to Montana City and Helena via trails and open space. That includes possible corridors along Prickly Pear Creek, from Montana City to Canyon Ferry Road.
“We talked about having a trail system people could use so when they’re at the soccer fields of Helena they could come out here along a nice pathway by Prickly Pear,” Williams said. “We also talked about having some kind of interpretive center for nature.”
Ron Whitmoyer, East Helena schools superintendant, said while the cultural heritage group also looked toward the future, it doesn’t want East Helena to lose its connection to the past. They focused their attention on the manager’s house, and the possibility of turning it into some kind of museum or educational center, or even office space.
“The entire East Helena community was built upon the Asarco plant … and the only thing of historical value is the manager’s house,” Whitmoyer said. “Maybe we can move the Manlove cabin closer to the manager’s house. It’s in a central location, and we could use the area for parking for a trailhead. We talked about it being an educational center, and maybe Fish, Wildlife and Parks could hold seminars about wildlife there.”
But regardless of its eventual use, Whitmoyer said they need to move forward sooner rather than later, as time takes its toll on the vacant structure.
“There’s already some concerns about the plumbing freezing and the property itself going to weeds,” Whitmoyer said. “But if we’re going to preserve the house it will cost money, and we need to find a funding source to create a museum.”
Cindy Brooks is president of the Montana Environmental Trust, created to hold not only title to the Asarco properties, but also a $100 million settlement to be used in East Helena to clean up the contamination left over from the lead smelting process. Her goal is to eventually sell the land for redevelopment, with the proceeds going back into the trust to further fund the cleanup effort.
Brooks said the discussions are helpful as they begin the process, allowing her to learn more about the community’s goals, desires and concerns. She added that it’s important to get the first property developed in order to show others that it’s not that difficult to do.
“We have a lot going for us and a lot of property that’s fairly level. We have to find ways to put all that information together in one place, and simplify the process so we can help overcome the market stigma issue,” Brooks said. “I believe the process that started last week has really put us on that path.”
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org