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Missoula area nonprofits win state tourism grants

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Thurston Elfstrom, executive director of the Montana Natural History Center in Missoula, says a $10,500 tourism grant will help the center update its Glacial Lake Missoula exhibit. "We're very excited," he says. "It's going to tell a great story of inundation, kind of the eastern part of the floods. It's kind of become a very influential story ... ."

From new rodeo bleachers in Superior to an improved Ice Age flooding exhibit in Missoula, a wide range of nonprofit organizations have been awarded new funding to boost tourism efforts in western Montana.

The Montana Department of Commerce announced Wednesday that nearly $830,000 worth of grants will be awarded to 26 towns and communities to help them attract visitors. The money comes from the Tourism Grant Program, and eligible projects include arts, culture and heritage preservation; visitor facility upgrades and construction, and niche product development.

The Missoula Downtown Foundation won $15,810 to complete a heritage interpretive plan for downtown Missoula, including exhibit development, outreach and education. The Montana Natural History Center in Missoula won $10,500 to improve interpretive exhibits at its headquarters as well as at the Ravalli County Museum.

Thurston Elfstrom, the executive director of the MNHC, said the money will help the nonprofit revitalize its 13-year-old Glacial Lake Missoula exhibit. During the end of the last Ice Age, a huge ice dam formed as many as 70 times over thousands of years, each time trapping an unfathomable amount of water in a lake that spanned the Missoula Valley, the Mission Valley and huge swaths of land in Idaho and Washington. Every time the ice dam broke, catastrophic floods scoured the landscape. Giant underwater whirlpools created pockmarks that can still be seen today, and soil from Montana has been found in western Oregon’s farm fields.

Elfstrom estimates about 10 percent of the visitors to the MNHC come for the Glacial Lake Missoula exhibit, and the money will be used with matching funds from the Ice Age Floods Institute to relaunch and improve the scope of the exhibit.

“We’re very excited,” he said. “It’s going to tell a great story of the inundation, kind of the eastern part of the floods. It’s kind of become a very influential story, because it’s one of the best-documented and earliest-known examples of glaciation and impoundments that would break free and scour the landscape."

The MNHC is offering furloughed federal employees free entrance this month.

"We’re very excited to do some new things and tell some new stories," he added.

The Seeley Lake Community Foundation was awarded $11,356 to replace the southern “Welcome to Seeley Lake” sign, and the Miracle of America Museum in Polson was awarded $10,288 to replace clapboard siding on the 106-year-old Green Mountain School House and to enhance the playground. The City of Thompson Falls was awarded $46,000 for development of Ainsworth Community Park, including construction of a pavilion and amphitheater.

Mineral County was awarded $64,388 to replace the Superior rodeo bleachers and for advertising the improved bleacher seating to the northwestern states region. The Mineral County Lions Club hosts the rodeo the first weekend in August every year, and it draws up to 4,500 people.

“We’re excited,” said Steve Temple of the Mineral County Lions Club, which worked with the county to get the grant. “It’s a great opportunity. The facility itself really suffers from a lack of rehabilitation. We patch it every year but this is a chance to replace the seating and the walkways and the ramp areas. It will be a big improvement.”

Temple, the Superior Volunteer Fire Department chief, said the money will also be used to market to out-of-state tourists in places like northern Idaho and Spokane, Washington.

“We want to expand Montana’s profile,” he said. “Part of our goal in writing the grant is to increase the number of seats and do out-of-state advertising to bring more people from out of the area. Idaho and Washington are pretty logical markets. Spokane is less than two hours of a drive from here, so it makes sense.”

According to Jenny Pelej, interim division administrator for the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development, out-of-state visitors added $3.4 billion to Montana’s economy in 2017 and these grants are meant to boost that number.

“In Montana, you’re never far from world-class recreation and visitor experiences,” she said in an email. “Tourism is an industry with a statewide impact, and these grants help communities both large and small maximize their ability to bring customers into Main Street businesses and support jobs.”

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