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Can Tourism Improve Sanders County?

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Travel Montana helps the county assess the benefits of tourism

“We’re all tourists. When we leave the county to shop in Missoula or Spokane, we’re tourists. When we ask 'Who are tourists?,' we’re them.”—John Halpop

Travel Montana has selected Sanders County as one of three Montana communities to participate in its 2002-2003 session of the Community Tourism Assessment Program (CTAP).

Travel Montana is a statewide tourism development and promotion program provided by the Montana Department of Commerce and it serves the people of Montana with programs designed to develop and promote Montana as an attractive destination for visitors from around the world.

Sanders County applied last year but was initially turned down. According to John Halpop of Sanders County Extension Service, “A countywide application is not as easy as an individual community application. We resubmitted a fairly solid proposal for the entire county this year and we were chosen.”

Sanders County, along with Eureka/Tobacco Valley and St. Ignatius will participate in an assessment process designed to help Montana communities determine how tourism can help diversify and expand their area economy.

“Twenty-six communities around the state have used this program to better understand the role tourism plays in the economic vitality of their area,” said Mark Simonich, director of the Montana Commerce Department.

The Montana CTAP is a community “self-help” program developed to assist communities identify what role, if any, tourism can play in strengthening local economies. It is not necessarily pro-tourism. The Montana Commerce Department’s Promotion Division and MSU Extension provide the process facilitators while the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research (ITRR) provides research services.

According to Steve Simonson, an economic specialist with Sanders County Community Development Corp., “Montana piloted this project, modeling it after a system developed in western North Carolina where ten counties working together developed a cultural trail and tripled business to the area.”

Simonson would like to see Sanders County unite on common themes around tourism, while still emphasizing the diversity of the region. “I would like to see the scenic byway continue through Montana from Sandpoint and Hope.” He suggests a joint Chambers of Commerce meeting between these areas “to identify how we can equally share in the region’s resources.” 

Simonson envisions loop tours based around the cultural and heritage features of the county, such as the history of David Thompson, to promote business opportunities.  He believes “Sanders County has numerous unique features that are attractive to visitors, such as Ross Creek Cedars, the Bison Range and Hot Springs. We can pass customers along throughout the county from one place to another. At the same time, there may be sacred areas we don’t want to share, such as a personal favorite fishing spot.”

Through CTAP, Sanders County will follow a 9-month process of assessment, and evaluation. The process provides comprehensive analysis of the county’s current economic structure, its assets, resident attitudes toward tourism, area lifestyles, marketing, as well as existing and potential tourism resources.

After successfully completing the process, there will be $10,000 awarded to the community for some type of “brick-and-mortar” infrastructure improvement.

“The meetings, which are open to the public, are structured and research based,” Halpop said. “An advisory steering committee was formed at the first meeting in October to look at all aspects of tourism, to assess tourism potential and identify projects that may help build some economy out of tourism.”

After the initial analysis, the community and its assessment partners identify potential tourism products that can be developed in the area. They then determine the social, economic and environmental impacts, positive and negative, that are expected to result from this product development. 

Once the analysis and assessments are completed, the community determines what tourism-related projects, if any, should be pursued. Some communities augmented visitor centers, for example, while others improved signage or developed overlooks for highway pullouts.

One of the first activities in the CTAP process was to complete an attitude survey, which was randomly mailed to 500 residents in Sanders County with specific questions about tourism and its advantages and disadvantages.

Among the questions incorporated into a standard survey form were: Do you have a suggestion for an image for Sanders County that takes into account the county’s past, present and future? When you have family and friends visit, what recreation and attractions do you share with them? Should Sanders County promote Glacial Lake Missoula and how should this be done?

What is the impact of tourism? What infrastructure improvements are necessary? What do people think about tourists? These are some of the questions to be asked and answered.

“We’re all tourists,” Halpop said. “When we leave the county to shop in Missoula or Spokane, we’re tourists. When we ask ‘Who are tourists?', we’re them.”

“We need to replace logging and mining in Sanders County,” Halpop said, “and tourism creates service-based industry.” These service jobs are in hotels and campgrounds, restaurants and bars, grocery stores and service stations, auto rental and repairs.

Heron resident Barney McLinden has worked in both the logging and mining industries. I asked whether he thought tourism could help replace these lost revenues. “No, never,” he said. “There’s nothing here (in Sanders County) for tourists. There’s not much fishing. Hunting and outfitting generates a lot of money into Montana, but they’re here for a few days and gone.  What do we do the rest of the time? A few people will have jobs and a few people will pad their pockets. Most of us will just get by.”

Yet tourism is one of Montana’s leading basic industries. In 2001, more than 9.55 million people visited Montana. Annual visitor expenditures have been about $1.7 billion, creating a benefit of over $3 billion for the Montana economy. Montana’s tourism industry has an annual payroll of $433 million and directly involves 28,000 Montana jobs.

On the local scale, fun and recreation are near and dear to the hearts of Sanders County residents. Several new events, including the Vermilion River Mountain Bike Challenge and the Cabinet Mountain Man 21-mile snowshoe race, may help bring new visitors to the region, who in turn might spend some time and money. 

The Heron Drama Club and Dinner Theater brings attention to the town of Heron as well as resources and revenue for its Community Center, as does the annual Heron Softball Tournament and the Great Blue Heron Craft Fair, just to name a few efforts at innovation.

Throughout Sanders County, individuals with imagination are doing what they can to foster opportunity. According to the Montana Arts Council, one out of every 80 people in Montana’s labor force is a working artist. Artists and tourism go hand in glove. It could be a natural fit.

If you would like input into the Community Tourism Assessment Program, the next meeting is at 6:30 pm, December 19th at the Thompson Falls Job Service.


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Janis Clarke

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