BONNER — A casual conversation between two local businessmen at a luncheon about tourism last year resulted in a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday for the brand new KettleHouse Amphitheater, a 4,000-seat venue on the banks of the Blackfoot River in Bonner, just west of Missoula.
Nick Checota, who owns the Top Hat, The Wilma and Logjam Presents with his wife Robin, was chatting with Tim O’Leary, who owns the KettleHouse Brewing Co. with his wife Suzy Rizza, about their mutual business interests.
“We discussed the importance of tourism to our businesses in Montana,” O’Leary recalled, standing next to his wife Suzy and speaking to a large crowd on a concrete patio overlooking the river. Afterward, O'Leary walked up to Checota and asked if he was serious when he mentioned wanting an outdoor venue.
"And I said ‘if you’re serious, come out to the brewery because we got a nice flat piece of ground'," O'Leary recalled. "I thought maybe we’d have a kegger and a couple of bands, you know, an old-time Montana party. Suzy mentioned that this might be a good amphitheater at some point. Well, Nick left, had lunch, and came back with a shovel. And started digging.”
O’Leary was joking, but it’s true that Checota and his wife Robin embarked on an ambitious and aggressive schedule, starting on Jan. 1 of this year, to build the venue. Checota told the crowd that he tries to make sure every facet of his business of bringing live music to Missoula is focused on quality.
“The most important aspect of fulfilling our mission is the venue and the physical facility itself,” he said. “As a result, we take considerable efforts to design our venues and we make a financial commitment to make them a unique and exceptional place to hear music. This project afforded us the opportunity that the Top Hat and Wilma did not, which was to design and construct a venue from scratch.
"From view lines to service areas to green room facilities to the overall look and feel, this project allowed us to create a space that we hope will provide a world-class entertainment experience.”
O’Leary said that both he and Checota, like many other business owners in the state, depend on tourists and the economic boost they provide.
“We have a million people in this state but we are visited by over 10 million tourists,” he explained. “It also happens that we sell, collectively, a million barrels worth of beer to consumers in this state. Now I’d like to think you all do your part and drink one barrel per person, but you don’t, so we do need those tourists and visitors. Montanans and tourists alike come here and stay here because of our vistas, our recreational opportunities, our clean air and water and of course great beer. Without the support of our neighbors and tourists, we would not be here today.”
Checota listed a lengthy number of contractors that he worked with that made the project go as smoothly as possible through a cold winter and a wet spring, including local excavators, concrete workers, landscapers, engineers and architects.
“I can think of few times in my career that I have worked with a more intelligent, conscientious, dedicated and capable group of individuals,” he said.
He also thanked Missoula County government officials for helping him through a pile of paperwork.
“Often government bodies are criticized for encumbering a project or slowing down economic development,” he said. “This was not our experience with Missoula County. From the zoning to the health department to public works, the county was flexible and creative to help us achieve what was a very accelerated schedule so we’re very grateful.”
O’Leary said that when he first talked with Steve Nelson and Mike Boehme, who own the former mill site in Bonner where the new KettleHouse Brewing facility is located, he and his wife envisioned a “world class brewery and maybe even, someday, a venue where our neighbors could come and visit us and enjoy a cold one and be entertained.”
He had no idea that dream would be fulfilled so soon, as the venue will host its first two concerts this week.
“We may be the dreamers of the dream but Nick is the doer of the deed and we thank you,” O’Leary said.
Missoula County Commissioners Jean Curtiss, Nicole Rowley and Dave Strohmaier were joined by Missoula Mayor John Engen and Gov. Steve Bullock at the event.
“Look around and you can see the amazing growth of our small businesses,” Bullock said. “These folks are creating jobs, growing other local businesses, and encouraging conservation and environmental stewardship in the Blackfoot River watershed. The impact of this on our local economy and on Montana’s economy is great.”