By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
For the second time in three years, a group of community leaders is discussing building a visitors center in Havre.
The center would sit on county land at the Hill County Fairgrounds and be visible from U.S. Highway 2. It would provide information about local and regional tourist attractions, and would also have restrooms and space for RVs to park. A volunteer would be on hand during the day to answer visitors' questions.
"There's all kinds of things to see and do here, but frankly, on the highway there's not much of a presence that tells people that those things exist," said Craig Erickson, planner at Bear Paw Development Corp. "The idea was to have a highly visible visitors center to attract people off the highway."
Debbie Vandeberg, executive director of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, said a visitors center has been one of the chamber board's long-range projects for three or four years. Funding for the project was denied by the Montana Department of Transportation in 2001. The chamber decided at its annual retreat in January to take up the idea again.
Vandeberg envisions a regional visitors center that would include information about tourist attractions to the east and west and at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, she said.
Erickson said he has talked to people who run some of the local tourist attractions, and they have been supportive.
"I think that the community really needs something like that," said John Brumley, who manages the Wahkpa Chu'gn Bison Kill Site with his wife, Anna Brumley. "I think there's very little opportunity for people passing through Havre to find out what we have to offer." He added that the chamber provides that kind of information now, but that in its present location, it is easy for tourists to miss.
The last time local leaders discussed building a visitors center, Hill County in 2001 submitted an application to the Montana Department of Transportation's Community Transportation Enhancement Program to pay for about $95,000 of the $200,000 project, Erickson said.
CTEP gives cities and counties grants for various public projects. Every project that uses CTEP funding requires a 13.42 percent local match.
That year MDT declared the project ineligible because it determined that the two offices and a conference room included in the plans were beyond the scope of a visitors center. Erickson said the extra space was intended to be used by the chamber and the Great Northern Fair Board, and to provide a space for a volunteer staffing the center. He said he still disagrees with MDT's determination.
Last week a small group, including Havre Mayor Bob Rice, Hill County Commissioner Pat Conway, fair manager Tim Solomon, Vandeberg, Erickson and Chris Faber, a director at large on the chamber board, met at Bear Paw Development to discuss the idea.
"There's a real strong interest on the part of the chamber to do this," Erickson said Thursday. "The county is supportive. Mayor Rice is supportive. We'll just see where we can go with it."
This time around, Erickson said, there will not be offices or a conference room included in the plans. That will mean a smaller project with a smaller price tag.
"I would hope we could get it done for less than $100,000," he said.
Due to delays at the federal level, this year's CTEP allocations from the federal government won't be known until later than usual - probably not until May, Erickson said.
Once that amount is known, the city and the county will hold public hearings to gather public comment and get recommendations for other potential projects.
"There's a long way to go here, and I don't want people to assume that this is a done deal," he said.
If the visitors center project is approved, the city and county can apply for CTEP funds. Applications are due in July and decisions are usually made in September.
Erickson said that both the County Commission and the mayor told him they have not yet been approached about other potential CTEP projects.