Editor's note: Each week, the Missoulian provides readers with a sampling of news gleaned from weekly newspapers around western Montana.
BIGFORK - The world has become considerably smaller for a retired couple living in Bigfork, whose chance encounter with an African exchange student has brought more than $20,000 to a rural Zambian village.
Marilyn and Gordon Graham are members of the local Rotary Club, and were attending a district conference in Hot Springs when they met Prisca Kambole.
According to Alex Strickland of the Bigfork Eagle, Kambole is from Kitwe, Zambia, and was here as a group study exchange member with Rotary International.
From the moment Marilyn Graham met Kambole, "my life was changed," Graham said.
Kambole already had initiated a fundraising project back home, with women making beadwork to sell through a community nonprofit. Marilyn helped bring those baubles to America, where they could fetch higher prices.
Then, the Grahams began collecting clothing for Zambian children. Eventually, they applied for a community assistance grant through the Rotary Foundation.
Kambole helped by compiling a comprehensive budget, detailing the cost of digging water wells and providing specific assistance.
"It took hours, weeks and even months," Marilyn said.
In June, $23,188.50 was released through Rotary, enough to fund two wells, three toilet blocks, 375 mosquito nets, shedfuls of gardening tools, library books, jewelry making equipment, and training ranging from how to sell merchandise to how to maintain the toilet facilities.
Marilyn Graham and Kambole have since been awarded the Paul Harris Award for exceptional service to others, by Rotary International.
"It's like I made a footprint on this world," Marilyn said. "Prisca and I made a footprint together."
South Valley Creek bridge to close Sunday
ARLEE - It looks like residents on the far side of the South Valley Creek Road bridge will have to travel an extra six miles to cross the Jocko River.
Char-Koosta News reports Lake County will close the bridge on Sunday because of safety concerns related to the span's structural integrity.
"It's an accident waiting to happen," said Paddy Trusler, county commission chairman.
The bridge's load capacity has gone from 8 tons to 5 tons to 3 tons following recent inspection reports, which are conducted every other year by the Montana Department of Transportation. The latest road restriction meant school buses and emergency vehicles couldn't cross.
Come Sunday, no one can.
The county had earmarked some $223,000 in stimulus funds to replace the bridge, but a preliminary estimate set the cost at $1.2 million.
"The long and short of it is that we are still committed to rebuild and are not inclined to repair the existing bridge because it can't be repaired structurally to handle the heavy loads," said Trusler.
Attorney Tracey Morin, speaking for the affected residents, said the county had known for three years that the bridge was closed to emergency service vehicles, but the residents found out only recently. Morin said she talked to a state transportation official who told her the state didn't recommend closure.
But the Montana Department of Transportation bridge engineer with whom the county dealt did, said Trusler.
"We have to go with our own engineer's recommendation to close," Trusler said.
C-Falls span may come back for pedestrians
COLUMBIA FALLS - A historic but time-worn bridge that crosses the Flathead River in Columbia Falls may see new life as a pedestrian crossing.
According to Heidi Desch of the Hungry Horse News, local leaders - under the banner of the "First Best Place Task Force" - are working on a partnership between the city, Flathead County, the state and private residents to rebuild the "Red Bridge." The group hopes to reopen the bridge, and install a boat launch and kayaking area. Plans also include two restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts - one on each side of the river.
"These are good conceptual ideas," said County Administrator Mike Pence, "but how do we get funding without specific plans?"
The county, which owns the bridge, has signed a memorandum of understanding with the city, committing to seeking funds for the work. The next step is to complete a formal plan and engineering report on the bridge, which should cost about $100,000.
The bridge was built about 100 years ago, and survived major flooding before being closed to vehicles in 1989. Later, pedestrian use was cut off and the approaches were torn down.
Costs to make the bridge usable again are estimated in the $1.3 million range. More than a dozen possible funding sources have been identified for the project, including federal stimulus money set aside for historic preservation.
Flathead landlords report price drop
KALISPELL - The Flathead Valley's home rental market has softened, driven downward by the same economic recession that has stalled property sales nationwide.
According to Molly Priddy of the Flathead Beacon, landlords are reporting higher turnover rates and a countywide drop in rental prices.
"It's kind of a difficult time," said Pete Burkett, owner of Flathead Property Management. "We haven't seen anything like this in the Flathead Valley."
Burkett estimates rental prices are down somewhere between 15 percent and 20 percent during the last seven months. In addition, demand for rentals has dropped as laid-off workers leave the region to find jobs elsewhere.
Those renters who remain are increasingly successful negotiating their own prices, he said, as the supply of rentals outstrips demand.
"Nobody would have come in a year ago and say, 'Would the owner take $50 less than this?' and now it's commonplace," Burkett said.
Jennifer Volkert, at Glacier Property Management, says rent rates have fallen an average $100 per month.
The market shift, however, seems to be helping families in search of affordable housing. The wait-time for affordable housing programs has shrunk from three years to just six months, as more lower-cost units come vacant.
Weeklies Reader is compiled by reporters Vince Devlin, Michael Jamison and Kim Briggeman.