By Ross Markman
Whether its cleaning up the streets, expanding U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes or encouraging shoppers to stay local, one thing's for sure: Area business owners are passionate about revitalizing Havre's economic status.
And so is Havre Mayor Bob Rice.
This morning, Rice, along with the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, hosted a one-hour breakfast meeting focused on finding ways to rejuvenate the town's business district.
"Just because I'm the mayor doesn't mean I have all the answers," Rice told the nearly 50 business people and residents in attendance. "But there are so many things we can do if we put our minds together."
The talk at the meeting ranged from fostering community pride to shopping in Great Falls.
Or, as business owners would rather have it, not shopping in Great Falls.
"Every one of us needs to look at the reason we go to Great Falls to shop," one businessman said. "The slogan, Buy Havre,' isn't enough."
Sue Markley, who used to run a taxi service in Havre, agreed.
"I think we all need to be more familiar with other businesses in town, find out what's in the mall now," said Markley, who now works at Kitty Keepers. "Then when people come in your store and you don't have what they want, you can send them somewhere else in Havre and they don't go to Great Falls."
Rice acknowledged that part of the problem is Canadian shoppers bypassing Havre and going straight to Great Falls. To combat this, he suggested business owners display both American and Canadian flags at their storefronts something he said is being done in Great Falls. Rice said he's also heard of several businesses in Great Falls putting up flags representing Native Americans in their windows.
Something like that could be crucial to Havre's economic development, Rice said.
"The Indians don't feel like part of Havre. I'd like to change that. They're a vital part of this community," he said.
Rice also suggested the city establish a "gimmick" to attract people from outside Havre. He pointed out a town in Idaho that hosts an annual sheep festival and another in Minnesota that is famous for its tulips. Both attract hordes of consumers from outside their borders thanks to their gimmick, Rice said.
"With this many people in this room, I can't believe we can't think of a gimmick for Havre," he said. "I want to do things to make people stop here. Once you have them stopped, you can latch onto them for a lot of things."
More than a million people visit First Street during the summer, Rice added, citing figures from the Montana Department of Transportation. The mayor said he plans to spruce up the entrance into town and to relocate the "Welcome to Havre" sign.
"So when people drive down the hill, it jumps out at them," Rice said.
But, according to one Havre resident, signage isn't sufficient. Chuck Grant said the friendliness of the townspeople is just as crucial to Havre's economic livelihood.
"I've lived here all my life, but I feel like an outsider here," Grant said at the meeting. "Havre needs to be more welcoming to visitors and people who live here. It's not just a business thing, it's a social thing."
Ray Peck, a former Democratic state representative from Havre, said the local business community won't thrive until the national economy is repaired.
"We've hammered away at this ever since I came to this community," Peck said. "When the economy is down across the nation, it's pretty difficult to talk about economic development."
But that won't stop Rice and the Chamber of Commerce from trying.
"Everything the chamber does is economic development," said Debbie Vandeberg, the group's executive director. "Bob talked about that community spirit. We're all here together. There's no magical answer. There's not one simple solution to the problem."