Havre Daily News
A Great Falls architecture firm is developing a plan to build a visitors center at the Hill County Fairgrounds that could include historical and cultural displays as well as office space for the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce.
County and chamber officials met with the firm Tuesday to discuss the size and purpose of the building, as well as identify potential funding sources, said Craig Erickson, community planner for Bear Paw Development Corp.
While the project is still very much in the conceptual phase, the visitors center also could include office space for the Great Northern Fair Board and promotions for local tourist attractions, Hill County Commissioner Doug Kaercher said.
"It could be kiosks or displays for Havre Beneath the Streets, Fort Assinniboine - all the major historical attractions - or for Beaver Creek Park, or even some places on the Hi-Line. There could be any number of displays there depicting the area," Kaercher said.
Tuesday's meeting was to give CTA Architects & Engineers of Great Falls a chance to collaborate with local leaders to get some direction for the project, Erickson said.
"They wanted to meet with us to get some sense of what we would like this facility to do. They wanted to get a scope for the project and hear what we would like it to look like," he said.
The visitors center would not be solely for Havre or Hill County, Erickson said, adding that the proposed center would "be a regional project."
The purpose behind the visitors center is to boost tourism, Erickson said.
"It's all about economic development," he said.
A survey of Hill County visitors in 2002 found that nonresidents spent $12.2 million here, Erickson said.
"Those funds were spent in restaurants, hotels, gas stations. Clearly, nonresident visitors are a significant part of our economy and it can get bigger," he said.
The same survey showed that almost 50 percent of the people who visited Hill County didn't have any set plans for their visit.
"They stopped and looked around and spent money in the places that attracted them. If we can get more proactive about what we have in our communities, hopefully they'll spend more money," Erickson said.
Preliminary cost estimates for the proposed visitors center range from $250,000 to $1 million.
Potential sources of funding include grants from the Community Transportation Enhancement Program and the Tourism Infrastructure Investment Program of the Montana Department of Commerce, Erickson said.
A previous proposal to use CTEP funds for the center was abandoned because county officials were told the center was ineligible for the funds because the center included office space for the Havre-Area Chamber of Commerce.
However, Erickson said he has researched the issue and believes the CTEP program is still a viable funding source for the proposed center.
"We've revisited that and we think we can prepare a project where that doesn't become and issue," Erickson said, adding that he knows of similar projects across the country that have successfully secured CTEP funds.
CTA is preparing an initial proposal for the center, which will outline the cost of building a visitors center at the fairgrounds.
"Our goal is to have a facility constructed by 2006," he said. "The design will allow for the expansion of the building.
Erickson said he believes the center could be built for about $250,000, then later expanded using additional funds.
"There is some talk of maybe doing an interpretation of the archaeological significance of this region, which is quite impressive, but to do that, were talking about a much larger facility than we can afford," he said.
The building that would be ready in 2006 "would interpret, in summary fashion, some of the cultural things that are present in this region," Erickson said. "The goal of which is to make people aware of what is available here to hopefully get them to spend more time here."
Erickson stressed that there are no guarantees that the visitors center will actually be built.
"We do have to seek grant funding and that is always competitive," he said.
Erickson said he has heard from a few people who are opposed to moving the Chamber of Commerce into the proposed visitors center.
"This is some resistance from people who don't think the Chamber should leave downtown Havre - and I agree with that - but the current location is not sufficient," he said, adding that the current office has limited parking and is inconvenient for people driving recreational vehicles.
"We need a place where we can put 40-foot RVs towing cars. It has to be visible and needs to be where they don't have to back up," he said.