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City cuts into the gravestone biz

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The small offices of Garden City Monument Services are lined with headstones. Blank granite slabs ring the showroom. In the storage room next door, stack of plaques etched with the names of the recently deceased lean against the wall like dominos. And in the small shop next to that, half-finished monuments await the sandblaster.

But it's a binder full of photos and thank-you notes that makes owner Bob Jordan smile with pride. He pages through the pictures of his public projects—war memorials, fundraising tiles, bricks on the UM oval—with the same quiet reminiscence of someone leafing through a photo album of a lost loved one. Jordan pulls out the binder, he says, to prove that he hasn't worked in the gravestone business for 40-plus years just to make a buck, that he cares about his work and his community.

The binder also puts a point on the affront he feels as the city prepares to begin selling and engraving headstones at the municipally run Missoula City Cemetery, a decision Jordan equates to Missoula starting a rival, taxpayer-subsidized business.

"That's really an unfair advantage that they're using," he says.

The city cemetery recently purchased a plotter and sent staff on a two-day training retreat so the department can begin selling gravestones and inscription services directly to cemetery clients later this year, according to city documents. Plans to offer monument cleaning and a requirement that gravestones be set by cemetery staff—not local monument businesses—are also in the works.

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The changes prompted Jordan and the owner of another Missoula company that offers monument services, Garden City Funeral and Crematory, to hire an attorney earlier this year. That attorney sent the city a cease and desist letter threatening legal action if the cemetery doesn't abandon its plan. Jordan doesn't think it's legal for the city to compete with private businesses like his.

"If they can pull this off, what's to stop them from starting their own flower shop?" he says.

Jordan and Garden City Funeral and Crematory owner Rick Evans both say the issue is the culmination of troubles they've run into since Ron Regan took over as city cemetery director a few years ago. Evans says Regan has been a stickler about gravestone regulations in particular. Staff from both companies have had to file down granite edges after Regan rejected monuments they'd already set for being 1/8" too wide (Jordan puts the nitpicking at 1/16").

Regan didn't return a call for comment, and city communications director Ginny Merriam says officials have been instructed not to discuss the issue outside of public meetings because of the threatened litigation. In March letters to the monument companies and the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, however, city attorney Jim Nugent wrote that the city cemetery's plan amounts to "persevering in the service industry." The cemetery expects to generate $4,000–$5,000 in annual revenue through the service, he wrote.

That amount isn't enough to put Jordan or Evans out of business, but they think monument making at Missoula's largest cemetery is bound to grow over time. Jordan's business will still retain one advantage, though. Before making their choice, each of the cemetery's potential customers will drive by a billboard of sorts for Jordan's work: He engraved the cemetery's sign.

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