By HDN Editorial Board
The Burton K. Wheeler Center forum last week on the relationship between highway improvements and economic development was a real eye-opener.
It covered lots of ground, but the most startling fact to emerge was this: No one has a crystal ball to predict the economic outcome once a highway is expanded.
People in this area of expertise are working on developing more reliable computer models to examine the consequences of highway improvements. But those tools aren't yet available.
Those who are anxious to see the widening of U.S. Highway 2 into an economic corridor and everyone else who lives here should accept a basic assumption, one repeated time and again by the experts attending the Burton Wheeler roundtable. Widening a highway in itself won't bring economic development unless people have other reasons to come here.
We cannot just have faith in "build it and they will come."
One thing that is lacking in our area is a concerted effort by all who would benefit in developing the Hi-Line as a destination. Some are trying but their advice is not being heeded.
They point to examples elsewhere. For instance, in North Carolina, communities and businesses have banded together to develop an area arts and crafts tour. These types of tours attract people curious about an area and ready to spend time and money examining its particular charms.
We have much to offer history, art, crafts, theater and poetry, and tremendous riches in wildlife and agriculture. We need to agree on a common vision of how we want to present our riches to the outside world and then come up with a plan to do so.
We're only limited by our imaginations. How about tours of area farms, where producers explain how they grow what ends up in breakfast cereal boxes. How about a theatrical pub crawl of Havre, with actors portraying our most interesting historical chartacters at each stop. We have a history and a way of life that people from the more fast-paced parts of America love and would pay money to experience.
The time to do this is now. We should believe what the experts tell us about the hordes of tourists who will be here during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. Those people will be here even if Highway 2 is a two-lane road.
If we tie our future to the widening of Highway 2, we're tying it to faith that the U.S. Congress will see fit to spend the billion-plus dollars for the project. And nobody knows when, or if, that's going to happen.
If we give people more reasons to come here, Congress may be more inclined to give them a better road on which to get here.