Lee retires from Lake County Community Development
RONAN – Billie Lee’s ability to dream is one of the qualities she and those who know her well say is one of her greatest assets. But the retiring executive director of Lake County Community Development Corporation could scarce have guessed two decades ago the dividends her ambitious nature would reap for Mission Valley.
“She’s had a huge impact,” LCCDC board member Jay Preston said. “I figure if you take the projects that she has been able to get funded and bring money in over a 25 year period then her impact has been about half a billion dollars (for the community).”
After spending 30 years away from her native Missoula, Lee returned to her Montana roots in 1992 to be near family. She soon found a job working for the City of Ronan, as the founding director of the Ronan Housing Authority. The part-time gig came with a $500 per month paycheck, some free office space donated by Preston, and a huge task: create an affordable housing system for many low and middle-income families in Ronan that were slipping through the cracks because of a lack of infrastructure.
“All she had was a charter and a little bit of money,” Preston said.
Lee was successful in the endeavor and her skills for getting projects up and running soon were soon in demand. Preston had been working with a group of volunteers trying to jumpstart business in the valley, but the organization was just an unsprouted seed in those days. There were similar volunteer organizations in Polson and St. Ignatius.
Lee took the lead on combining the economic development groups into Lake County Community Development Corporation, which could access grants and other funds available to jumpstart other business projects. Today the corporation has a $3 million revolving loan fund available to small businesses.
Lee’s invisible fingerprints can be found on some of the biggest infrastructure projects in Lake County. The Ronan Wastewater Treatment Plant was built with a grant Lee wrote. The funds for the multi-million dollar Skyline Drive renovation that was completed in 2013 were accessed by Lee.
“She’s a dreamer and she can come up with really innovative ideas and then she has the perseverance and the persistence to get them done,” Preston said. “I’ve never seen her ever give up … I can’t say enough about her ability to organize, inspire and nurture really unlikely ideas.”
One long-shot of an idea was the establishment of the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center in 1999, which promotes local agriculture.
“It was a new thing for an economic development organization to really work with agriculture in the sense of value-added food,” Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Director Jan Tusick said. “Most of the EDCs (Economic Development Centers) are more focused on manufacturing businesses or typical mom and pop businesses downtown. This was a new shift and with Billie’s leadership Lake County Community Development really became a leader in value-added agricultural and cooperative
development in the state.”
The food center contains the state’s only shared-use USDA inspected food processing plant that allows small businesses to package their foods for distribution. In addition, programs that bring locally grown foods to schools and hospitals are housed in the center.
“It never would have happened if Billie would not have embraced the idea,” Tusick said. “It was really her open-mindedness. She saw the vision and embraced it.”
Lee’s list of accomplishments is long and varied, but she said the most pleasurable part of her job is assisting others in reaching their own goals.
“I love helping people and businesses realize their dreams,” Lee said. “So I guess that my favorite part is the mentoring part … I see them reach their potential, or sometimes, help them realize that they have potential.”
Lee said past 20 years “have been quite a ride,” but that she is ready to hand the reins over to her successor Gypsy Ray.
Ray is a Missoula native with 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. She was the founding executive director of Mountain Home Montana and coordinator of the Frenchtown Community Coalition.
She took over Lee’s position on Sept. 15, though Lee will remain on staff for the next 60-90 days in a transition period.
“After twenty years of working in the nonprofit sector in Missoula County, I am excited to now lead the Lake County Community Development Corporation,” Ray said. “Billie Lee is leaving quite a legacy and I am honored to be named the successor of such a successful organization.”
The Lake County Community Development Corporation’s board announced last week that they will name the organization’s building after Lee.