Tourism board considering options for Expo Park improvement project

The board of the Great Falls Tourism Improvement District is considering its next move for the Expo Park improvement project.

The TBID’s board has been supportive and borne most of the cost for feasibility studies, draft improvement plans and cost estimates that have been conducted over the last few years. The TBID is an organization allowable under state law and is established by the City Commission with members also appointed by the commission.

The next step in the project is securing the estimated $133 million of funding for the improvements, which has to be through approval by voters on a public ballot.

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The TBID board’s preference has been to have the County Commission put the project on the ballot. Another option is to gather petition signatures to send the project to the ballot, according to Rebecca Engum, director of Great Falls Montana Tourism.

As a government entity that is funded by the local bed tax, the TBID board can’t lobby for any ballot initiative.

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A group of locals have created a political action committee to fundraise and lobby for the project. Recently, the person leading the PAC resigned and the group asked the TBID to consider spending another $5,000 to conduct an updated cost estimate on the project, before embarking on a $10,000 to $25,000 effort to poll the public on the likelihood of approval on the ballot initiative.

Billings is also looking at improving their county-owned events complex, MetraPark, for about $70 million. Their local political action committee made this video to garner community support.

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During their May 20 meeting, the consensus of the TBID board was to have Engum meet with county commissioners individually to gauge their level of support for the project at this point and sending it to the ballot.

They also discussed the PAC’s request for $5,000 to update the cost estimate.

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Peter Jennings, owner of the Celtic Cowboy/Arvon Hotel and a TBID board member, said that it “sounds like right now is not the time to do anything.”

He said perhaps it was better to come up with a plan, build a base of support and try again for a ballot initiative in 2024.

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Wayne Thares, a former partner at the Celtic Cowboy, said that had been the position for about the last decade and that the TBID had spent significant resources with no support from the county commission.

Commissioners have helped coordinate public meetings about the project and contacting Expo Park users, and contributed $25,000 toward the cost of a deeper study into the livestock component of the project.

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His wife, owner of the O’Haire Motor Inn/Sip ‘n Dip, Sandy Thares, said, “I just feel like we’re not going to gain any ground if we don’t have some sort of public support from the county commissioners,” before doing a study on whether the bond would pass.

Scott Shull, owner of Days Inn, said they know the costs will be higher this year due to COVID-19 for any construction materials and labor, and that the county has started improving facilities at Expo Park over the last few years, such as the grandstands, Paddock Club and currently the stables.

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Engum told the board that what direction they want to take at this juncture is important, whether it be transitioning it to the county washing their hands of it entirely, or trying one last push to encourage the county to move forward.

She asked the board if they wanted to phase the project, such as starting with the livestock buildings versus the multipurpose event center.

Sandy Thares said she didn’t think the citizens would approve two different bond issues.

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Susan Shannon, Expo Park manager, said that the most conflict she gets on the calendar is availability for the Pacific Steel and Recycling Four Seasons Area and that many event organizers have to pass because the arena is already booked.

“And they’re big things that would be very beneficial,” Shannon said. She said she hasn’t had to pass on any livestock type events.

Shull and several other TBID board members agreed the project should be all or nothing versus a phased approach.