Efforts to create National Heritage Area in Great Falls region continuing

If a group of locals are successful in their effort, the first National Heritage Area in Montana, and the region, would be in the Great Falls area.

The Upper Missouri River Planning Area Planning Corporation held community conversations last week in Helena, Fort Benton and Great Falls as one of the preliminary steps in the feasibility study process.

Once completed, the feasibility is submitted to Congress, which must vote to approve the NHA designation.

The planning group raised the funds needed for the feasibility study and last fall hired August Carlino from the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area in Pittsburgh, Penn., and Nancy Morgan, of Point Heritage Development Consulting, as the consultants to help conduct the local feasibility study. The consultants visited the area in January to begin work on the feasibility study.

National Heritage Area project gaining momentum in Great Falls region

Last week’s meetings were the latest in the string of community events dating back to January 2015 in the quest to create the heritage area, which is largely a tourism and economic development tool for communities.

According to the Alliance of National Areas, an independent 2012 study by Tripp Umbach found that NHAs’ overall annual economic impact in the U.S. is $12.9 billion, significantly exceeding the amount of federal funding provided to NHAs by as much as 5:1. The economic impact is primarily in tourism, operational expenditures and grantmaking activities; with the majority, 99 percent, is generated by tourism spending.

The economic impact was significant in two ways, according to Umbach’s study:

  • $4.6 billion in direct impact, which includes tourist spending, NHA operational expenditures and grantmaking activities
  • $8.3 billion in indirect and induced impacts, which includes employee spending and businesses supporting the tourism industry.

In 1984, the first National Heritage Area, Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Area, was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

There are 49 NHAs in the U.S. currently and to receive the designation, an area must “tell nationally important stories that celebrate our nation’s diverse heritage. NHAs are lived-in landscapes. Consequently, NHA entities collaborate with communities to determine how to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs,” according to the National Park Service.

NHAs are a grassroots, community-driven approach to heritage conservation and economic development and typically involved public-private partnerships.

No NHAs exist in Montana and some have been established in Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Alaska.

According to NPS, the designation often results in sustainable economic development as NHAs can leverage federal funding to create jobs, generate revenue for local governments and sustain local communities through revitalization and heritage tourism.

An effort to explore an NHA has started in Bozeman, but it’s in the preliminary stages.

About 60 people attended the meeting in Great Falls on May 3.

Lola Sheldon-Galloway, a state legislator, said her property in the Sun Prairie area was in the proposed boundary and asked if it could be removed.

Carlino said that there is no impact on property rights or zoning from NHAs and property owners within the boundary can simply chose not to be involved.

The federal laws establishing NHAs require that no property rights or zoning be impacted, Morgan told the group. She previously worked with a heritage area in Louisiana. The local planning group has also adopted a resolution to protect property rights.

Heritage areas also provide recreational opportunities, Morgan said.

“It’s not just preserving the past,” she said.

The proposed themes for the Upper Missouri River heritage area are:

  • Ice Age/American Indians
  • Exploration and settlement
  • Transportation
  • Military
  • Industry/Agriculture
  • Art

The proposed boundary is from Fort Benton to Gates of the Mountains with tributaries of the Sun, Smith and Belt Creek.

Those boundaries can change as the feasibility study process continues.

“You have things of national historic significance.” Morgan said. There are four national historic landmarks in the area, including the First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park; Charlie Russell home and studio; the Lewis and Clark Portage Route and the Fort Benton Historic District.

Jane Weber, chair of the planning group and a County Commissioner, told those gathered at the May 3 meeting to stay involved in the process to help shape the boundaries, themes and overall plan, should the heritage area be approved by Congress.

Members of the planning group also met last week with the lieutenant governor, representatives of the Department of Commerce, Montana State Parks, Indian Affairs, Montana Historical Society, state historic preservation office, governor’s office of economic development, state main street program, and the U.S. Forest Service about the proposed heritage area.