BUTTE, Mont. (AP) — Jim Davison spends some time on what he calls “product testing” at Smelter City Brewing, which opened in the historic Electric Light Building at 101 Main St. in Anaconda in 2017. And during his visits, the executive director of the Anaconda Local Development Corp., which works to bring new business to town, has noticed something.
“The people that are in there, they’re the skiers that are coming in,” Davison told The Montana Standard. “You see the snowmobilers that have out-of-state or out-of-county plates. It’s new faces all the time. They’re recreating, and they’re stopping by there.”
And it’s not just the brewery where you see the conspicuously outdoorsy who are conspicuously from elsewhere bringing fresh energy — and an infusion of money — to the Smelter City, he says. It’s the restaurants, the stores, the motels. It’s even houses in the Goosetown neighborhood, the historically working class neighborhood where Davison lives and where he’s noticed an uptick in homes being rented out as short-term vacation rentals to folks who often have “racks on the car” and other signs that they’re in town to get outside.
It’s no secret that outdoor recreation makes a major contribution to the Montana economy.
In fact, the Treasure State’s outdoor economy is credited with generating $7.1 billion in consumer spending, more than 71,000 jobs, $286 million in state and local taxes, and $2.2 billion in wages and salaries for workers each year, according to September report from the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation.
While economic development officials in Butte, Anaconda and Dillon don’t have localized data showing the precise impact of recreation on area businesses and workers, they agree that it’s already an important driver of growth — and that it will serve a key role in charting future opportunities for investment.
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
According to Joe Willauer, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corp., Butte is “ideally situated among some of Montana’s best” outdoor recreation opportunities, including hiking, fishing, skiing, skating and boating. And that, he says, “gives us a really cool opportunity to tell the story of what Butte has to offer.”
That story, he says, allows him and other economic development officials to tell a new story about Butte to businesses that are looking to relocate or expand.
“We want to recruit and retain business, and we also want to change the narrative,” Willauer says. “Instead of dwelling on some of the challenges, we want to talk about the good things.”
To do so, the BLDC has helped push Butte Elevated, a marketing campaign that touts the Mining’ City’s “access to thousands of acres of pristine wilderness, spectacular mountain views, affordable living, quality schools, extraordinarily clean water, and an unparalleled quality of life.” The BLDC also recently launched Basecamp Butte, a website with interactive trail maps, an outdoor recreation map and other resources designed to demonstrate the accessibility of local recreation opportunities.
Willauer says efforts like these are designed to attract not only businesses but also skilled workers who can help solve “one of the biggest challenges we face in economic development”: the area’s limited workforce. By touting Butte’s benefits during a time when Montana as a whole is “so popular,” Willauer believes officials can attract more of the highly skilled potential employees who can help draw in new employers.
While he acknowledges it’s “totally a chicken and egg” kind of situation, Willauer says the BLDC and other groups “really focus on it both ways.”
“Everybody knows about our rich history in Butte,” Willauer says. “There’s no shortage of people talking about the past in Butte, but we want to talk about the future.”
FOCUS ON RECREATION
That’s sentiment Gina Evans, a longtime booster of mountain biking in Butte, agrees with.
“Recreation is the new mining for Butte,” says Evans, who has deep roots in the city’s long-lost Meaderville and McQueen neighborhoods and who now owns a mountain biking shuttle, rental and planning service called Linked Adventures.
Already, she says, mountain biking is a “driving force” for both bringing in visitors and for attracting longer-term residents and businesses.
Before stepping down in 2017, Evans directed the Butte 100, a long-distance mountain bike race that she helped grow exponentially during her 11 years at the helm.
And according to Stephanie Sorini, executive director of the Butte Chamber of Commerce and owner of the race, the Butte 100 continues to grow. She says organizers have already sold out and amassed waiting lists for the 50- and 25-mile courses in next year’s race.
“It just shows that outdoor recreation is a big deal in Butte and southwest Montana,” Sorini says, “We have people that come from all over to ride our trails and hike our trails.”
Evans notes, too, that the season for mountain biking in Butte has been extended and is now “year round” due to the growing popularity of fat bikes, which have oversized tires that allow riders to churn through powder.
But Evans believes a more concerted, data-driven approach could help ensure that resources are efficiently directed to bolster the burgeoning recreation economy.
With more “hard facts” and “stats to back up what most of know is out there,” Evans says local officials from the government, business and economic development communities could pursue a “collaborative effort” like that of Advantage Butte, which seeks to boost the local economy by bidding for and hosting sporting events, except geared toward outdoor recreation.
“We should all come together in one pod and say, ‘Let’s roll,’ and drive this to the next level,” Evans says.
One area town that has taken its outdoor economy to another level is Philipsburg, where recreation opportunities have a fueled a major growth in the local travel and tourism economy. According to data compiled by Headwaters Economics, employment in the travel and tourism sectors in Granite County increased 139 percent between 1998 to 2016, going from 98 to 234 jobs. (During the same period, non-travel and tourism employment grew only 8 percent.)
Heidi Beck-Heser, who grew up in Philipsburg and serves as the corresponding secretary in the town’s chamber of commerce, says relying on the outdoors has led to a “boost” in the economy but that it’s not always a steady boost. When the weather’s “not cooperative,” she notes, “it can hinder us.”
One of the main drivers of the weather-dependent outdoor economy can be found just above Philipsburg, at the Discovery Ski Area, which sees 60,000 to 70,000 skiers a year and has an annual payroll of about a million dollars, according to Peter Pitcher, who has retired as the hill’s manager but “still helps out.”
In his 35 years at Discovery, Pitcher said he’s seen steady growth not only at the ski area itself but also in “ancillary businesses” in Anaconda, Philipsburg and elsewhere.
But with Discovery so close and ample opportunities for fishing and snowmobiling all around, Beck-Heser says it’s vital for the town to find ways to make visitors see that the town offers more than whatever immediate recreational opportunity they have come for.
“We tend to try to promote ourselves for a year-round experience,” Beck-Heser says. “When it’s winter, we talk to our visitors about our summer opportunities, and when it’s summer we talk to them about our winter opportunities. . You have to grab them while you have them.”
One example of that “grab them while you have them” approach can be found in the town’s ice rink. Last year, the Philipsburg Ice Association received $104,000 to improve the quality of the ice surface at the Philipsburg Ice Rink to allow for a longer, more consistent ice skating season. In addition enabling an expansion of the town’s annual pond hockey tournament, the improved rink offers an added amenity to keep skiers around longer than they might otherwise stay to “hangout in Philipsburg for a day” and “skate and shop.”
And the list of recreational opportunities in Butte and the surrounding area goes on and on, whether it’s climbing, showshoeing, telemarking, birding, wildlife photography or disc golf.