By Tim Leeds
Local businesses, Chambers of Commerce and governments were finding out this week about an opportunity to capitalize on tourists passing through the area.
The North Central Montana Resource Conservation and Development Council has created a Web site promoting the area. Now it's trying to increase the number of businesses and tourist attractions that are promoted on the site - www.montanatrails.org.
Larry Robertson, coordinator of RC&D, said the organization is sending letters this week to tell area attractions and others about the site.
"We're just looking to expand," he said.
Randy Hanson, regional development officer for the Montana Department of Commerce in Havre, said the Web site offers an opportunity to coordinate activities of the many tourist attractions and projects to promote tourism and businesses in the area.
"They're all bits and pieces of a puzzle. (People are) all doing bits of stuff but don't know what everybody else is doing," he said. "A site like the RC&D site can bring it all together so everybody knows."
The Web site was up last spring. Since then, Web master Gordon Hollingshead has been working steadily to get the new site listed on search engines.
"It took more than six months to start getting on the search engines," Robertson said.
The site grew out of an effort began several years ago to partner with Amtrak to offer and promote loop tours in the region. Train passengers could stop at Hi-Line communities and take tours of attractions in and near the community.
While RC&D is still interested in that concept, the Web site is intended to attract tourists using any mode of transportation.
"We're trying to expand the Web site with more stuff specific to north-central Montana," he said.
Robertson said that if tourists knew about other attractions or events, they could plan their Montana vacation to include them. They could plan to stop at a rodeo or powwow, for instance, while heading toward Glacier or Yellowstone national parks or stopping at Lewis and Clark sites.
Clint Blackwood, executive director of the Montana Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission, said the bicentennial will provide an opportunity for Montana businesses and tourist sites to attract additional visitors.
"We don't think that people will come here just for Lewis and Clark," he said. "They will continue to see the Montana things they usually see, but will take in as much of Lewis and Clark sites and events as they can."
It's impossible to say how many additional visitors the bicentennial will bring to Montana, he added. Factors like the price of gasoline, the impacts of 9/11, and the potential war with Iraq will affect the numbers, he said.
Blackwood said an increase of 5 percent to 10 percent above Montana's usual 9.5 million annual tourists would not be unrealistic.
The biggest increases will probably come in 2005 and 2006, the anniversary of the Corps of Discovery's travel through Montana, he added.
Freda Bryson of Chinook, secretary and past chair of RC&D, said the Web site can promote many locations and businesses in the 10-county area the organization serves.
"All of those different counties have their own special attractions," she said.
Debbie Vandeberg, executive director of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, was involved in trying to create the loop tours, but that has been put on hold while the future of Amtrak is debated in Congress, she said.
During the restructuring of Amtrak by its president, David Gunn, who took over the rail service last spring, the people she was talking to about the tours lost their positions, she said.
"All my contacts seem to have went away," she said.
Vandeberg said she is focusing her efforts on building cultural tourism corridors, a project initiated in Montana by the Missoula Cultural Council.
Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said the potential of attracting more tourists to local attractions and businesses is almost limitless.
He cited information provided by Jeff Ang-Olson of ITC, the consultant studying the possible economic impact of widening U.S. Highway 2 between Havre and Fort Belknap for the Montana Department of Transportation.
Ang-Olson, in a presentation during the annual meeting of the Chamber on Jan. 22, said nearly 200,000 groups or families travel along the Hi-Line to go to Glacier National Park every year, but only about 4 percent of those tourists stop at local attractions, like Havre Beneath the Streets and Fort Assinniboine.
Anne Boothe, executive director of the economic growth council PhillCo in Malta, said the Web site could provide an opportunity for people who can't afford much advertising.
"In our area there are so many people doing things who can't enter the market. We thought this would be a way to get it jump-started," she said.
A grant from the Montana Community Foundation funded the creation of the site. The grant will continue funding the operation for another year or two, Robertson said, but won't pay for expanding it.
He said he thinks forming a cooperative or other association is probably the best way to go to continue funding and expanding the site.
For an annual fee in the range of $25 to $50, the members could have their businesses or attractions listed on the site, he said.
"The whole point was to make it as inexpensive as possible," he added.
It will be crucial to ask people coming to businesses and tourist sites in the area how they found out about them, Robertson said. If the Web site isn't bringing new business, something else will have to be tried.
"If this isn't going to be effective, we need to know about that," he said. "The key issue is making sure it's seen. If that's one of the costs, that's a good thing for people to invest in. This is for the people and businesses and communities, for the people trying to survive in rural communities."