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North-central Montana is focus of tourism effort


A group promoting a different kind of tourism in north-central Montana met in Havre Saturday to plan developing cultural tourism corridors in the area.

"Our goal at this point is to get people who are interested in joining signing up," said Vicki Warp of Missoula, who is coordinating the effort here.

"I'd like to see more from Havre," she added.

Warp, a 1976 Havre High School graduate, said she has been receiving applications from people who want to be included on the tours, but many more are needed. She is discovering that the Havre area has many attractions that could bring people to the area, she said.

"I'm learning things about our own heritage I didn't know myself," she said. "It's hard to know your own culture when you're in the middle of it. Part of this whole process has been figuring out what our culture is."

The effort, titled Hands of Harvest - The Craft Heritage Trails of North Central Montana, is modeled after the HandMade in America program begun in North Carolina in 1993. The cultural tourism corridors promoted in the North Carolina program are credited with generating $122 million a year in the North Carolina economy, Warp said.

Cultural tourism focuses on attractions unique to an area. It features businesses with a cultural twist, like artists' studios, shops and galleries with an emphasis on local crafts; events like craft fairs or cultural activities like powwows, rodeos and cowboy poetry readings; and lodging with a local feel like bed and breakfasts, farms and ranches, hunting and fishing camps and historic hotels.

The intent is to promote local cultural business, rather than traditional tourist attractions like national parks. Those tourist attractions are already marketed by other groups, like the Montana Department of Commerce's Travel Montana division, she said.

"We really want to help the local economies," Warp said.

She added that the goal of Hands of Harvest is to print a map by May 15 listing attractions in north-central Montana. Hands of Harvest has identified five cultural tourism loops in a triangular region ranging from Browning to Chinook, possibly extending to Harlem or Malta, and south to the Great Falls area.

"We need to get something in people's hands," Warp said. "That's our goal in the short term."

The loop along the northern route has been named The Great Northern Trail.

Hands of Harvest also is trying to establish a presence on the Internet. Warp said her group is looking for an unused address they can register for the organization, as well as looking for photos and writeups of attractions to post on the site and use in a book promoting the attractions. Warp plans to link to other sites, like the Travel Montana Web site.

The long-range goal is to publish a book modeled after the 122-page book published by HandMade in America. The book describes each of the attractions along each cultural loop. It also has a map showing the different loops.

Randy Hansen, regional development officer for the Montana Chamber of Commerce in Havre, said using the HandMade in America program will be a definite asset.

"You've got a blueprint to go by this time. It's not just a concept, it's a proven process," he said.

Kathleen Shirilla of the Old Library Gallery in Havre said the program could help bring different groups together to promote themselves. Working in her field keeps her in touch with people with similar pursuits, but she has little contact with people in other fields, Shirilla said. Shirilla was one of four local people who attended Saturday's meeting.

She said the program could promote things that people can find only in north-central Montana.

"I think you want to feature people who are unique to the area, and who are doing things specific to the area," Shirilla said.

The program started with a grant the national Partners in Tourism Share Your Heritage program made to the Missoula Cultural Council. The council held a two-day workshop in May, with Becky Anderson, executive director of HandMade in America, a featured speaker. Anderson returned to speak at a meeting in Fort Benton in October.

Groups were formed in three geographical areas to promote cultural tourism. Corridors focusing on logging between Hamilton and Kalispell and on mining between Butte and Philipsburg are also being developed, Warp said.

Warp said her group is planning to establish monthly meetings in Havre to work on the project. Meetings have been held in communities in the corridor, such as Chester, since the project started last spring.

The five corridors identified in north-central Montana include The Great Northern Trail corridor and a corridor including Great Falls, Stockett, Centerville, Tracy and Belt, then north to Havre. Another loop runs from Browning to Choteau and then to Great Falls; another runs from Great Falls to Shelby; and another starts in Great Falls, runs to Wolf Creek, Augusta, Fairfield, and back to Great Falls.

Warp was at a meeting in Great Falls today with other project leaders from the five corridors identified in the Hands of Harvest area.

She said today that the effort is staffed entirely by volunteers.

The group is looking for grants from organizations like the Russell Country division of Travel Montana to fund the project, she said. The application fee of $25 to be included in Hands of Harvest also will help fund the project, she added.

Hands of Harvest hopes to find funding to print the book promoting the area by September, she said. A Great Falls graphic designer has offered the group reduced rates to design the map and book, she said.

Hansen said the leadership of the project eventually could be taken over by the people who are promoting their attractions.

"Someone who has a vested interest is going to do a much better job keeping it going," he said.

People interested in joining the Hands of Harvest promotion should contact their local Chambers of Commerce for information about applications, Warp said.

For more information, contact Warp at (406) 542-7611 or (406) 544-0373.


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