Havre Daily News
A group working on one of the planned additions to the Hill County Fairgrounds took a few steps forward Thursday by gaining some focus, earning some cash and creating a name for a proposed facility that could become a "lighthouse" to guide travelers to the revamped fairgrounds and other local attractions.
The Hill County Visitor and Cultural Center could serve as the home for the Great Northern Fair Board and manager, the Montana Actors' Theatre and the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, and as a starting point for tours of the Wahkpa Chu'gn buffalo jump. Tours for other regional attractions, such as Bear Paw Battlefield and Fort Assinniboine, could also originate at the center, Bear Paw Development Corp. planning director Craig Erickson said.
To get the ball rolling, MAT is putting $1,500 toward planning the project, and the Clack Foundation and chamber tourism committee are each adding $500.
The dual purpose of the proposed building is evident in its name: Organizers are trying to create a facility that will serve both as a beacon to market the Havre area's attractions and as a destination for people to take in a performance or event.
A 3.2-acre site at the northwest corner of the fairgrounds has been selected for the building. The high-profile site is just right for the facility's purpose, Erickson said.
"The goal of this group is to create a very high-impact building, something that people will see from the highway and say 'What is that? Let's go see,'" Erickson said. "You draw them in and then whet their appetite for what there is to see and do."
The group's focus is not just on promoting Havre, but promoting the historical and cultural assets of a five-county region to travelers and tourists, he added.
"If we can just educate the travelers on their way to or from Glacier (National Park), it'll help stimulate economic activity all over the place," Erickson said. "We just need to do a better job of developing that sector of our economy. It drives through there every day."
The concept for the building's design is a structure combining the elements of a grain elevator with a railroad depot, but Erickson said that could change along with many other aspects of the project. The group stressed Thursday that it would like to hear from the community about the project, and plans could easily evolve to suit new ideas that come from those discussions.
A visitor center was first discussed in late 2001, but the project's proponents hit a roadblock when the state denied a funding request. Talk about the center was revived last year. Through those discussions, the visitor center has evolved into something more.
After talking it over Thursday, members of the group agreed that the facility could and should provide two functions.
"It is a visitor center, but there can be so much more that goes along with that," MAT president Jay Pyette said. "There is potential economic growth with a visitor center, but with it being a cultural center, it quits becoming only a stop for information and becomes a destination."
Theater groups have been shown to promote economic growth by attracting audiences in a repetitive fashion, Pyette said. MAT would work to bring both regional and nonregional audiences to Havre by holding regular performances at the facility. Audiences will grow as time goes on and theatergoers return with friends.
Havre is also located between two large summer theater draws, the Fort Peck Summer Theatre and the Bigfork Summer Playhouse.
With retail chains, restaurants and hotels in the planning stages for Havre, the arts should not be left behind and can go a long way to adding to that economic development, Pyette said.
The $1,500 from MAT is an indication of how serious the group is about the project, he added. The $500 from the Clack Foundation is in memory of Ardelle Hurlburt, a board member and former Havre city judge who died in May, foundation vice chair Gary Wilson said.
With the other two donations, the group raised $2,500 Thursday, but there is much more to be done. Erickson said he would guess the group needs about $20,000 to begin the process of planning the facility. Members of the group are actively looking into grant funding options, but any help from the community would be greatly appreciated.
Chamber executive director Debbie Vandeberg noted that the group working to create the Hi-Line Multipurpose Event Center has raised about $22,000 from residents and business owners. Much of that money came through good old face-to-face fund-raising by Stockman Bank vice president Chuck Wimmer. The same efforts could be fruitful for this group, she added.
The event center and the visitor and cultural center are both part of the master plan to upgrade the fairgrounds. The projects are being worked on separately but are both part of the same big picture, members of the group agreed.
The visitor and cultural center preliminary concepts will be part of the display booth at this year's Great Northern Fair. The parties involved with the proposed upgrade to the fairgrounds are all seeking input from the public.
"This project is very much a part of what's going on at the fairgrounds," Erickson said. "There is going to be significant public input into that."
Erickson and Wilson both said they came out of Thursday's meeting excited about the possibilities presented. Energy is building behind the project, and the number of people attending the meeting was up.
"That's a great sign," Wilson said. "The ball is rolling on this."
The group's next meeting is tentatively set for Aug. 18 at noon at the TownHouse Inns.