Focus on food, drink and tourism can drive local Montana economies;

Visitors to Cascade County spent about $203.8 million at local restaurants, bars, hotels, gas stations, retailers and more, according to data from 2015-2016.

Bed tax collections in the Great Falls area have also been trending up since 2007, according to Dax Schieffer, director of the non-profit Voices of Tourism.

Schieffer spoke to a group of hoteliers, business owners and civic leaders in early October about the role tourism can plan in local economies.

Taste Our Place launching in Great Falls today

The four components of a tourism economy, he said, are attractions, accommodation, access and awareness.

In terms of access, airport deboardings have been increasing statewide and been high in Great Falls, Schieffer said.

Awareness is where there’s opportunity to grow, he said, and the state recognized that in 1987 when it designated a 4 percent bed tax with a portion going toward tourism.

In 1987, the tax generated about $2 million and by 2016, it generated $28 million. That’s funding for tourism, state parks, the historical society, heritage preservation, the university system and tribal tourism.

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Those tourism dollars take some tax burden off Montana property owners, Schieffer said, and tourism can help stimulate local economies with new dollars coming in and supporting jobs.

Statewide, 12.5 million non-resident visitors spent $3.4 billion in 2017, supported 53,380 jobs and $1.35 billion in salaries, according to the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana.

Those visitors generated $205 million in state and local taxes and lowered taxes on each Montana household by $491, according to ITTR.

One of the areas of opportunity for growth includes agri-tourism, Chris Christiaens of Montana Farmers Union told the group.

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He said that over the summer, 18 foreign delegations expressed interest in visiting wheat and barley operations in Montana and many want to learn about equipment, technology and drones in agriculture.

Christiaens shared an agritourism resource manual that was produced by AERO and briefly discussed the feasibility study conducted by the Montana Cooperative Development Center on creating a food hub cooperative in the Golden Triangle.

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He said that there aren’t currently enough producers to make it work, but if more restaurants and consumers buy local, the regional food hub could grow.

There’s a marketing effort underway through a partnership between the Montana departments of agriculture and commerce to highlight local food.

That effort, Taste Our Place, launched in Great Falls in September during an event at the Mighty Mo Brewing Company.

Taste Our Place

Menu items at Mighty Mo Brewing Company that showcase locally sources ingredients. Photo by Jenn Rowell | The Electric

Pam Haxby-Cote, Montana Department of Commerce director, said Great Falls was the perfect place to launch the effort.

“You have the best products around,” she said.

Haxby-Cote and her husband have owned a restaurant in Butte for 26 years and served Montana sources ingredients for years.

“We didn’t know it was cool,” she said.

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Last year, about 12 million visitors to Montana spent $667 million at food and drinking establishments.

Taste Our Place is designed to showcase to visitors that eating in Montana establishments allows them to experience the culture of each town.

The two goals are to help consumers learn more about agricultural products in the state and also create another market for producers to sell their goods, according to Agriculture Director Ben Thomas.

“Consumers want more and more local foods,” Thomas said.

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During the event, Casey Kingsland announced that Mighty Mo was launching a 100 percent Montana beer with locally harvested hops and locally malted barley that didn’t come from Malteurop.

Kingland is the co-owner and head brewer at Mighty Mo.

For Haxby-Cote it’s personal.

“We get to know who we’re buying from,” she said.

She’s hoping Taste Our Place will help foster those kinds of relationships and create more opportunities for Montana farms and ranchers.

“Eating out for me should be an experience,” said Haxby-Cote.

Kingsland said the new beer had hops from Josh Wulf, a local producer, and it took about a third of his harvest to make the beer.

It can be challenging for small hops producers to supply beer brewers since the brewing equipment often needs pelletized hops and not many new, small hop farms have that equipment.

But, he’s happy to see hop farms starting up in the region since the closeness allows a brewer to inspect what he’s buying and know the grower.

“It’s mainly about making that connection with local people in the community,” Kingsland said. “It brings people together and that’s what a local brewery stands for, bringing people together.”

Taste Our Place is a way to highlight the local producers and their food, she said, which is a change of pace for some.

“Montana is a humble state,” she said.

Collin Watters, bureau chief of the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, said that focusing on locally produced products is important.

“There are so many local products we might not even know about,” he said. “We don’t always do a great job talking about ourselves and what we do.”

Such as Costa Pasta, which is a Montana made product from Pasta Montana and available in area grocery stores.

Much of Montana’s wheat is exported so the Taste Our Place campaign could get people talking about local products and drive more demand.

“We produce a lot of good food here and we should be proud of that,” Watters said. “Farmers are historically humble. They just do their job and they’re really good at it.”