By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Big Sandy's application to ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" has galvanized the town's effort to remake two blocks of downtown in a Wild West theme - an effort it kicks off Saturday with a benefit auction.
Marlys Bitz, president of the Big Sandy Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, said she applied three months ago to have the town made over by the popular television show.
At that time she was worried about the town's survival. Three businesses were for sale.
"I was worried about the domino effect," she said.
She described how towns lose grocery stores and physicians, and ultimately disappear entirely.
Bitz loves "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," and she thought she would give the show a try, asking for help remaking the home of a "family of 800."
Producers for the show could not be reached for comment about the status of Big Sandy's application.
According to the show's Web site, thousands of people apply each day and only struggling, deserving families can qualify. When a family is chosen, designers and builders have one week to plan and execute a large-scale remodeling project, which viewers watch over the course of a single episode.
In one case the show helped an entire town recover from a flood, the Web site said.
Bitz has not heard back from the show, but she said it was worth a try.
"What's the worst that could happen?" she asked. "They don't come."
Two businesses have since sold to new owners, but Bitz, who chamber members describe as the "driving force" behind the project, is aware she is not cheerleading at a pep rally, she is fighting for the town's survival.
"All the small places in Montana are struggling," she said. "It's a sad thing if we lose these places because it's a lot of history."
Decorating the old fire hall for Saturday's fund-raising art auction, chamber members leaned off ladders and pinned up sprigs of evergreen. Business owner Dave Louvar was in the middle of attaching a leafy branch when he paused and said, "The town is dwindling."
Two chamber members working nearby agreed.
Bitz hopes that a revived downtown will make people more likely to stay and will attract tourists. She hopes it can save Big Sandy.
The chamber members agreed on a Wild West theme for the new facades, she said. That's what they asked for from "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and that's what they will do, with or without the show.
"We want to bring back that history and keep what's here going," Bitz said.
Downtown beautification was the top choice of Big Sandy residents when they were surveyed by the Montana Economic Developers Association in 2003, Bitz said. The group conducted economic assessments in communities throughout the Hi-Line from 2001 to 2003. It presented its findings about Big Sandy on July 9, 2003.
"That's exactly what the assessments are supposed to do," said Bear Paw Development Corp. executive director Paul Tuss, who helped spearhead MEDA's assessment process as president of the statewide group. "I'm always of the opinion, when there's local leaders involved in a project that is locally driven, there is always a better chance of success."
Bitz hopes that if the town is picked for the show, the surprise can be announced at homecoming in June. But she has already been surprised by support from far away.
Oregon-based Rinascere Studios Ltd. has donated a bronze sculpture appraised at $32,000 for Saturday's auction - "Primitive Forces" by famed sculptor Lorenzo Ghiglieri.
Bitz is not sure how the studio heard of the chamber's event.
"I was so stunned, there's questions I didn't ask," she said.
The studio allowed her to go online and choose one or two pieces. She chose the bronze depiction of two bull elk clashing.
Only when her choice arrived, did she learn its value - and size, several feet wide and tall.
"I was shaking in my shoes when I first saw it," she said.
Bitz said past chamber fund-raisers have raised an average of $10,000, but she hopes with this donation, the chamber will surpass that.
She is not done looking to the outside for help.
"You need to try to get help wherever you can," she said. That's why she will seek corporate sponsors as well. One she has in mind is Wrangler.
The chamber and the Rotary Club have sponsored two previous art auctions. The two events raised $17,000, money that went for a park. The chamber's money was supplemented by $3,000 from the Rotary Club and a grant obtained by the city.
The two organizations also donated money toward fixing the downtown sidewalks, an ongoing project, Bitz said.
"There's more to life than Tony Roma's," Roberta Edwards, Saturday's master of cremonies, said, reflecting on the merits of Big Sandy.
She said she is originally from Billings, and didn't adjust to small town life immediately. Her friend Bitz helped teach her the value of a small community like Big Sandy.
"Marlys has really helped me realize that it is important that our town lives," she said. "She helped me have a sense of community that I didn't have before."