Havre Daily News
Big Sandy is not getting the help it originally hoped for - a network television show to take charge of its face-lift - but it found help elsewhere, and organizers say the results may be even better.
The town's Chamber of Commerce recently signed on with the Montana State University Community Design Center to plan its makeover. The goal is to give young residents a reason to stay, as well as to attract travelers to visit and make purchases. Painting the grain elevators red, adding period lighting, a new community center and a welcome sign are among the ideas proposed.
The makeover project took form when the town applied a year ago to ABC's ”Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,“ asking to be re-made in an Old West theme. Beautification project coordinator Marlys Bitz said she never heard from the show's producers, but the application accomplished a secondary goal, galvanizing a local revitalization effort.
Not in my town
At the time Bitz sent the application, the town of 800 residents had three businesses for sale. Bitz knew the formula for a town's death. First go the stores, then the doctors, and finally, the gas station.
The idea was planted in her head a few years ago, when Bear Paw Development Corp. planner Craig Erickson told her about the town of Verona, just 10 miles away from Big Sandy, that had once thrived.
”It's just a sign, two garbage cans and a picnic table,“ Erickson said this week.
Bitz's unofficial slogan became, ”We're not going to be another Verona,“ and she's been fighting to prevent it. So far things are going her way.
In the last year, the three businesses that had not sold, did, along with several others. A new business - a quilt shop - also came in.
Bitz bought the straggler among the defunct businesses herself, a bakery she made into the Bear Paw Coffee House and Deli. She said she got Big Sandy's best cook to come work for her there. She bought it just as the baking equipment was going to be sold out.
But these are just fingers in the dike, and Bitz said she knows the town is going to have to keep finding ways to turn things around.
The problem with Verona is people there did not want to see anything change, Bitz said. She wasn't going to see the same thing in Big Sandy. Each year the Big Sandy Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture holds several fundraisers. For a few years, the money raised went to a sidewalk project that's nearly complete. Now the chamber will focus on getting the money to do the projects the design center suggests, chamber president Wendy Kleinsasser 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 organization conducted economic assessments in communities throughout the Hi-Line.
Bitz knew ”Extreme Makeover“ was a long shot. At the same time she applied to the show, she began contacting people in other towns in Montana that had recently done beautification projects.
Somewhere along the line, she heard about the design center. The chamber already had the few thousand dollars on hand that the design center's work would cost, and it came highly recommended, Bitz said.
She thought Big Sandy would still do Wild West with or without ”Extreme Makeover,“ and figured the center could help.
The design center, made up of graduate students in architecture working with an adviser, had another idea.
”They came and looked at Big Sandy, at the personality of this town,“ Bitz said. ”For us, some of those buildings are things we are tired of looking at. To them, they said, ‘You don't want to hide that.'“
Old West facades would have taken away from the individuality of the buildings and the freedom of the storeowners, the students told them.
Bitz agreed. The idea now is to enhance what's already there, in particular, the importance of agriculture to the economy and culture of Big Sandy, she said.
”We are an Old West town, “ Bitz said. ”You're still going to have that.“
Design center director Tom McNab described the idea behind his students' work this way: ”We're looking at things from a macro to a micro level. The idea is to give you a sense of Big Sandy from a number of miles away from downtown, all the way down to what happens in town.“
Painting the grain elevators red would make Big Sandy more visible from the north and south on U.S. Highway 87. It also speaks to the agricultural economy, McNab said.
”The town has many aesthetically inspiring components, such as grain elevators and other elements of the agricultural lifestyle,“ design student Brittany Knickerbocker said in an e-mail. ”We are taking inspiration from those types of things.“
Fellow student Shane Jacobs agreed.
”We are designing a proposal for their community that respects the agriculture base of their community, but at the same time has a modern flair that attracts visitors to the area and ultimately into downtown businesses,“ he said.
One goal is to make the town appear ”greener“ without putting a strain on water sources, Jacobs said.
The students are working with landscape instructors at MSU to plan this, McNab said. One idea is to put a median down Johannes Avenue, the town's main street, and landscape it with drought-resistant plants.
Another important goal is to slow traffic down and give people a reason to stop. McNab said the students have a plan to change the entrance to the rest area and park located on U.S. Highway 87 across from Johannes Avenue, so that when cars pull up, they face the town. Otherwise, they could be across the highway from it and not even know it, he said.
The park is also the ideal location for a Big Sandy sign that can be seen by both northbound and southbound drivers.
Finally, the students suggested remaking the old IGA building into a community center or a small shopping mall and making it more accessible and inviting by installing windows. Right now, the building has no windows on U.S. 87, discouraging visitors and blocking the view of downtown.
The students have made several visits to town. They will return next Friday with a revised list of plans and mock-ups to show the community. The plans will be on display at 2 p.m. at the bakery. On Nov. 30, the students will give their final recommendations, McNab said.
After that, it's up to the community to decide what it will do.
Bitz said they'll probably start with the easy parts, fresh paint for storefronts and red paint for the grain elevators.
Period lighting, a redesigned park and a welcome sign could also be done relatively quickly, she said. A median and a new plan for the old IGA may take more time.
Erickson said he's working with the chamber to apply for grants for the project.
Bitz said she's been impressed with the students, in particular with their ability to relate personally to the project.
Knickerbocker is from Havre.
”I feel fortunate to be able to work on a project that is so close to home,“ she said. ”Many of the small towns in northern Montana face the same kind of issues that Big Sandy does. Since I grew up in the area, I am very aware of those issues, and feel that this project is a great opportunity for me to get involved and give something back.“
Jacobs is from Lolo, a city of 3,400 people near Missoula.
”Lolo is simply a wide spot in the road that one day will be annexed by Missoula,“ he said in an e-mail. ”Sadly, not many people care that their little town will lose its entity. Although Big Sandy is a different situation, I ... do feel a great sense of personal pride in their community simply because of some similarities to small town America and the fact that there is such a great fabric to the people of their community. ”The Big Sandy citizens really care, they rally around their town, and they really support us and make us feel welcome every time we go there. It's great having clients and friends like them, because they're so involved in and passionate about their community,“ he said.
Since Big Sandy began to face its problem head on, it's getting attention from other communities.
Kleinsasser said residents of other towns have been contacting her to find out how to form a chamber in their own communities. She replied to a woman in Geraldine, but she said she doesn't know if a chamber was formed or not.
”It is harder when you're smaller,“ Bitz said. ”Everyone spends more volunteer time than they do at their own jobs.“
Erickson is optimistic the work will pay off.
”I applaud them, I really do,“ he said. ”They have a highly motivated group of people. They have gone out to raise the funding they need to bring in the CDC. In my opinion, they're going about it in the right way. Who knows what the outcome is going to be.“
Erickson said projects are ongoing in many communities to keep the towns alive. In Chester, people are working on getting a swimming pool, and in Chinook, a growth plan.
”Right now, Big Sandy comes to the forefront in my mind,“ he said.
Montana State University-Northern instructor Katherine Williams said one of her classes is keeping an eye on Big Sandy.
She has asked students to track various community initiatives. One, a relative of Bitz, has chosen to watch Big Sandy's beautification project.
”We will be following up on that as we go through, just because there are a lot of really wonderful small communities in our area that have the ingredients to pick up on the energy that Big Sandy has,“ Williams said.