Don Feist in front of the community store
The 22-acre trailer park just south of Great Falls, Montana, was built in 1962 for Boeing employees installing Minuteman missile systems for the U.S. Air Force. Half a century later, however, the property was tied up in foreclosure proceedings and in such bad shape the 250 residents felt as if they were living in a slum. Their water tanks once held oil at a refinery. Some of the sewer pipes were made of paper, causing frequent backups. Unsafe levels of arsenic were detected in the water. A spokesperson for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation told a local newspaper that Trailer Terrace had the worst water and sewer system she had ever seen.
But then the residents fought back. They formed a community cooperative and with Don Feist as president, assumed control of their lives.
“Everything is broken and the only way we are going to get it fixed is if we fix it," Feist told the local newspaper at the time. “Everything is going to change now.” And it did.
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The cooperative turned to NeighborWorks Great Falls for help, which also connected the members to ROC USA, a nonprofit that helps resident corporations buy their manufactured home communities or “mobile home parks” from private community owners. Soon it had secured financing to purchase the land on which the trailer park sat so the residents could run it themselves. The next step was to form their own water and sewer district so they could secure grants and replace the outdated infrastructure.
Feist also led the completion of a number of other physical improvements, including electrical upgrades, road paving and renovation of an abandoned home into a club house.
Lining up the financing and other arrangements for all this took four and a half years, the help of state legislators and county commissioners, and a lot of persistence. In recognition, ,he is one of the 2016 winners of the Dorothy Richardson Resident Leadership Award
Feist grew up in the area and moved into the trailer park with his son about seven years before he stepped up to replace the original president of the co-op, who had moved out of state.
Feist's 10-year-old son and playmate
“I didn’t realize half of what I’d be going through for the next six years,” recalls Feist, who also experienced a heart attack during the ordeal but kept on going. “The owner even tried to evict me. But I didn’t go away.”
In the process, he learned a lot. The man who spent most of his younger years hanging around mechanics shops and working as a DJ gained the knowledge and skills needed to ask for and get $3.4 million in grants. His secret?
“I was given the gift of gab; I talk to a lot of people and learn their names, where they live. I don’t pay attention to titles, but I know who to call for good advice. I can pretty much find out whatever I need to know in two to three phone calls,” says Feist, noting that many of the other volunteers in the trailer park had lost interest due to the drawn-out process required.
But perhaps what has contributed the most to his success was the influence of his father, a disabled World War II veteran and father of 11. “My dad taught me that if you believe in what you’re doing, you need to keep on going until you reach the final conclusion. You can’t give up.”