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BILLINGS – The black specialty license plate popularized by Miles City’s Milestown Community Improvement Inc. has some recent imitators, and their plates’ sleek design is helping to boost statewide sales.

“People have latched onto the black aesthetic theme,” said Dan Rice, the founder of the Miles City group who works as the Miles City city attorney. "But, I would encourage people to look at what they’re supporting. I don’t know that they’re all legitimate.”

The “vast majority of our sales are from outside our county,” Rice said. “They look good on any vehicle.”

According to the Montana Department of Justice, the Miles City group continued to lead the 212 other Montana groups selling specialty plates, having raised $55,720 between April and June, the most recent period for which figures are available.

But shooting up the short list of groups supplementing their fundraising by selling black license plates is Billings-based Bird of Pray Foundation, a humanitarian group that works chiefly with orphanages abroad. During the same quarter, the foundation reaped $46,550, the fourth most in the state.

“Simplicity is at the heart of our design,” said Jeff Biscoe, the foundation’s president. “A lot of people who have purchased the plate have researched our organization later. That’s how people get to know us.”

Just last month, the foundation purchased a heavy-duty wheelchair from a Bozeman agency that constructs wheelchairs for use in developing countries. Bird of Pray Foundation sent it and some other necessities to a girl with disabilities in the Philippines.

“The girl sleeps on a concrete floor and the mother would just hold her throughout the day,” Biscoe said in an email. “The mother is so thankful she is in tears every time we see her.”

Biscoe said the foundation began offering its black specialty plate in February. The plate has a mountain range at the bottom.

“I’m somewhat of a social orphan myself,” said Biscoe, whose wife, Chantelle, is expecting their second child any day. “I bounced around different families and was on my own beginning at 15, so I know what parentless kids go through. I’m grateful to help them as I was helped.”

Another group that’s also done well with the black plates is the Missoula-based chapter of Chicks-n-Chaps, which holds rodeo clinics and fundraisers to support women affected by breast cancer.

The organization raised $18,412 during the same quarter by opting for a black license plate with a map of the state and a steer skull inscribed.

“Everybody really likes that look,” said Kirsten Cooper, Chicks-n-Chaps’ development director. “People keep asking us on Facebook where they can get one, and the checks just keep coming every month.”

Cooper said the group looks to partner with health organizations or foundations in various Montana communities to keep the money in the communities where it was raised.

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“That way (the proceeds) benefit local women,” she said. “We take pride in that.”

A Montana original

Two years after designing and then issuing its black license plate featuring an outline of the state and a cowboy riding a bucking bronco – a nod to Miles City High School’s mascot – Milestown Community Improvement Inc. has most recently paid for construction of a band shell in Riverside Park.

“Everybody thinks it’s a great addition to the park, and it’ll definitely be put to use,” Rice said, probably beginning next spring.

“We do promote the plate, but we try not to be too biased,” said Kirk Sturdevant, who works in the Custer County Treasurer’s office and volunteers for the Milestown group. “We can suggest it, but ultimately it’s up to them.”

In addition to park improvements, the Milestown group is using money from license plate sales to help meet educational needs. One example: A high school teacher wants to bring in a Holocaust survivor to speak to students, and the group has agreed to cover half the cost.

“I have a feeling,” Sturdevant said, “that this group will be around for a while.”

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