From the Dec. 16, 2012 edition of the Missoulian
by Tristan Scott

Even as much of rural America struggles with economic decline, the Flathead Valley is growing and vibrant, its pristine natural resources, open spaces and quality of life paying off in tangible economic benefits.

In 2012, tourism and recreation remained the most powerful economic current in the region for the third year in a row, with northwest Montana’s wide open spaces — and Glacier National Park as its centerpiece — driving the economy in new directions.

The value of the land is increasingly shifting from an extractive resource to a harbor of natural beauty, a destination for visitors looking to experience an authentic slice of the West. Where the state’s rangelands once were sought after primarily for their industrial worth — as parcels to be farmed, mined or logged — there is now a higher premium on the lifestyle they afford, which is helping Montana compete in job sectors such as health care, real estate and technology.

To take advantage of this shifting trend, business and community leaders, conservationists, Montana’s Office of Tourism, and land managers are leveraging the landscape into a unique brand that emphasizes natural assets, locally produced food and drink, historic downtowns and hometown hospitality.

The rural life and its natural assets are no longer a liability, they’re a leg up.

“Montana sets itself apart by offering more authentic experiences in an untouched landscape,” said Diane Medler, director of the Kalispell Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And we offer that with relatively easy access. Visitors can stay in the Flathead Valley and have all this access to remote unique experiences while also enjoying the more traditional experiences.”

The Flathead Valley’s proximity to attractions such as Glacier National Park and Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain continue to define it as a terminus for outdoor recreation. By October of this year, Glacier had already ushered 2,077,463 visitors through its gates, a 16 percent increase over last year, when deep snowpack made for one of the latest openings of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in its 100-year history.

That meant visitation dropped to 1.7 million visitors, nonresident expenditures dropped to $213,346,000, but visitation still grew.

A year earlier, during the park’s centennial year, more than 2.2 million visitors came to the park, spending almost $110 million in surrounding communities, according to a study analyzing economic data from Glacier in 2010.

The spending also supported 1,695 jobs, according to the study, which was conducted by a Michigan State University researcher on behalf of the National Park Service.

‘Shoulder seasons’

This year, the Flathead Valley is on pace to best last year’s figures, Medler said. But much of the region’s success in the summer and winter months — the peak tourism seasons — is closely tied to the unpredictability of mountain weather, and to help sustain tourism as a major industry in the Flathead Valley during the slower “shoulder seasons,” business leaders and economic experts have cast an eye toward a new niche segment of sustainable tourism.

“We want to continue to come in at the edges, in March, April, May, and build on the core winter season so we level out and don’t get the historical drop in occupancy as soon as the Going-to-the-Sun Road closes,” Medler said.

In September, just as the summer tourism season started tapering out, Medler and the Kalispell Convention and Visitors Bureau organized the inaugural Montana Dragon Boat Festival on Flathead Lake, an event that drew 1,210 participants and 2,200 spectators to Flathead Lake.

The average duration of a nonresident visit to the Flathead Valley is 2 1/2 nights, said Janet Clark of the bureau, with individuals spending $544.

The Dragon Boat Festival is one of four signature events planned for the Flathead Valley to fill out the shoulder seasons, Medler said. In May, the bureau is organizing an obstacle trail race called a Spartan Race, and 1,300 participants have already registered.

“We’ll have 3,000 participants by the time the event arrives, and 40 percent of them will be from out-of-market regions,” Medler said. “By creating this kind of destination event, you can really create an impact, and that creates referral visits. They are going to tell family and friends about our beautiful Flathead Valley.”

Year-to-date hotel occupancy data through October show that occupancy was up 5.1 percent over 2011, Medler said, and October occupancy was up more than 10 percent compared to last year.

That means the busy season is spreading out, with local hotels, restaurants and retail shops benefiting later into the season.

“October was just exceptional,” she said.

Part of the allure is that, even when the ski hills or Going-to-the-Sun Road aren’t open, the Flathead Valley offers other attractions to visitors — attractions they can’t find in the “cookie cutter” resort towns of Colorado or Utah. A game of pond hockey at Woodland Park, a scenic drive up the North Fork Flathead River, Nordic skiing in Glacier Park, an affordable dinner of locally raised yak or bison all are options.

“The kind of traveler that is attracted to Western Montana, they are really looking for that kind of authentic experience, and here we can offer everyone something all year round,” said Vonnie Day, who owns Hop’s Downtown Grill in Kalispell.

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