Small Town Community Redevelopment: Harnessing Local Energy Like Columbia Falls, MT

by Joanne Steele on September 3, 2009

As Ed and I left Glacier National Park, the question on our mind was, how far away is the “Gateway City”.

Every national park has a number of small towns that benefit, because of their proximity, from the international acclaim of our national parks. They have a diversified enough economic base to have a year round population, but many suffer from the tourism season economic highs and off-season lows. I was looking for a gateway community to investigate how they are handling these economic fluctuations, and how the current economic downturn was affecting them.

When we drove into Columbia Falls, I knew we were there. The banners on the light posts even declared their “Gateway” status.

My first impression was mixed. The highway was busy with businesses including a thriving coffee house, our first stop. But the downtown area was a mix of nice historic buildings, a few beautiful new buildings with signs that indicated full occupancy, some vacancies and the usual low-end ticky-tacky.

The thing that stood out immediately was the number of antique shops. These, along with the brand new high-end buildings were a clue that something was up in Columbia Falls.

The staff at the coffee shop sent me to Dave Renfro, builder of one of those new buildings, who connected me with Barry Conger, founder and leading force behind the First Best Place Task Force.

It only takes one small town leader to gather the forces together to turn a town around.BarryConger

This guy’s infectious enthusiasm for his town was palpable. It’s a fact that in small towns, it only takes one person with drive, vision and skill to capture and organize all the potential swirling around the town. I saw that in Barry.

He is the driving force behind The First Best Place Task Force, an organization of local residents anxious to enhance the economic well-being of their community.

Columbia Falls, like so many rural communities had a prosperous resource based past. Their lumber mills and aluminum plant provided several thousand good blue-collar jobs. These jobs have dried up – only 100 of the 1600 aluminum plant jobs are still there, and the plant will close permanently soon. The timber jobs were gone long ago.

But the fierce pride in their town still lives in it’s residents, and Barry and the First Best Place Task Force are helping to put that pride to work.

The First Best Place Task Force’s vision is: “Dedicated to maintaining the unique small-town character of Columbia Falls, we seek to build on opportunities for outdoor adventure and economic prosperity.”

Towns that have a past resource-based economy often are slow to embrace tourism as a good economic alternative, and Columbia Falls is no exception. Watching 1.5 million visitors drive past on their way to Glacier has softened that attitude a bit in the past 4 or 5 years according to Barry.

“But,” he points out, “The community is still working out what’s next for us. Not everyone has agreed that it’s tourism.”

By working on projects that enhance the town for locals, First Best Place does not have to wade into that debate.

They are organizing behind projects that enhance the community for the locals, knowing that a thriving and beautiful town sitting at the gateway to Glacier will also draw visitors off the highway.

First Best Place is also overcoming problems so many small towns have in getting projects off the ground by embracing and partnering with everyone.

“If someone comes along and says, ‘But I was doing that!’,” explained Barry, “Our response is, ‘Great! Let’s do it together!’”

Their chamber is a good example. First Best Place is the project arm of the chamber, while the marketing and promotions duties reside within the chamber itself.

How First Best Place does business attraction.

First Best Place is undertaking a business attraction strategy that I’ve never run into before.

They are working to bring back locals who grew up in Columbia Falls and moved on. Barry outlined numerous examples of locals like himself who are returning, bringing their good paying jobs with them. Broadband technology is allowing these residents to live in and contribute to Columbia Falls while depending on outside sources of income. Barry’s wife is a good example. She telecommutes to her Stanford University job, flying to California 3 or 4 times a year for face-to-face meetings.

Availability of broadband technology in small, safe family-oriented communities may become as vital to small towns as timber and mining was 100 years ago. Columbia Falls is mining this opportunity to its great benefit.

What do local businesses think of First Best Place.

Sally Peterson, owner of Fashion Finds and one of the anchor vintage buildings in town, is new to Columbia Falls. She was drawn to the community from Minnesota by the beauty of the valley and the potential of the town.

She opened three years ago as an antique store and has recently moved into vintage clothing to fill a need she saw in the town. She, along with 5 other stores has created an antiques destination at Columbia Falls, which has received media attention all over Montana.

She sees antiques and locally owned restaurants as a great source of tourism dollars for the town. The numbers of residents crowding into her store as we talked indicated the local support these stores have, that will sustain them when tourism is down in the off-season.

She and the other antique store owners understand that they are collaborators, not competitors in creating this destination.

Sally is a member of the First Best Place Task Force because she has a strong desire to do things for the community and sees it as a great organization to give her time to.

With projects including revitalization of the downtown community park, relocation of the library and a museum to the park, refurbishment of the historic footbridge, creating a renaissance in the uptown district, and creation of a river trail, First Best Place has big plans for the future.

And with Barry’s guidance, and community support from folks like Dave Renfro and Sally Peterson, I expect over time all and more will be accomplished.

You can watch their progress at First Best Place.

1 Kim September 6, 2009 at 11:21 am

Traveling thru Idaho after 2 weeks travel thru western states, I share “road stories” with friends met along the way, and the consistent theme is to reach out to locals with sincerity and respect… On that path you find the best experiences, the great places to visit and eat and stay, the unique sense of each place. For locals to meet each visitor with the same honesty is where the magic of travel takes place.

2 Joanne Steele September 6, 2009 at 4:41 pm

Thanks Kim! We loved Idaho too. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about the little town of Weiser, ID, home of the National Fiddle Contest and so many nice people willing to take time from high school homecoming preparation to introduce us to their personal favorite places.

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