Looking for something to do? There’s lots of options coming up in Great Falls for art, music and volunteering

Great Falls is teeming with activities for the next six weeks and there are lots of ways for locals to get involved, plus tourism is rebounding, especially with visitors looking to escape the crowds.

The third annual ArtsFest Montana kicks off Aug. 8 and runs through Aug. 13.

An artists reception and fundraiser will be Aug.12 in the alley behind Dragonfly Dry Goods for $35 at the door to begin raising funds for next year’s event. During the event, Cameron Moberg, an internationally known muralist, will paint a piece to be auctioned.

ArtsFest MONTANA 2020 kicks off in Great Falls

This year’s event features six artists, including Moberg, who has been painting murals in Great Falls since 2018.

The organizers have covered costs for this year’s ArtsFest but are raising funds for the 2022 event, with the goal of redoing the murals at the underpass on 1st Avenue North and connecting the downtown murals to Milwaukee Station, West Bank and the River’s Edge Trail, according to Alison Fried, owner of Dragonfly Dry Goods and an ArtsFest organizer.

ArtsFest MONTANA 2019 photo gallery

Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the underpass murals, she said, and it’s fun to see “the progression of art from the time that was painted to what’s happening now.”

ArtsFest is organized by the Business Improvement District, which was established by the City Commission in 1989 and renewed every 10 years so far, with the goal to maintain, beautify and stimulate development in Great Falls’ historic downtown district. Property owners in the district vote whether to keep the district and they pay an additional assessment to fund the district’s activities.

Half of the overpass mural is in the BID boundary and can be funded with BID funds, but organizers need to raise outside funding for the portion outside the district.

NeighborWorks Great Falls has already made a $5,000 donation toward next year’s ArtsFest.

Fried said they want to promote the connection of art on both sides of the river with refreshed murals at the underpass.

“We’re an art town, this is what we’re about, this is what we do,” Fried said.

She said thousands come through Great Falls to see the murals and it’s been a positive change in the alley behind her store where many of the murals are located. Now, she hears people in the alley all the time, with families and children there to see the art and she said she sees a constant stream of people taking photos at the murals along the side of her building on 5th Street and in the alley.

“They’re iconic memory spots in downtown,” she said.

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Fried said that many of the visiting artists have large social media followings and people will travel to see their new works, which brings people to Great Falls.

Locals can watch the artists as they’re painting around town and also can get involved by donating to the program or sponsoring lunches for the artists while they’re here. To get involved or contribute, contact Joan Redeen of the BID at 406-727-5430 or info@greatfallsbid.com.

August is full of art with the Western Art Week events at the C.M. Russell Museum and the Out West Art Show at the Heritage Inn.

Western Art Week events set for March and August

The Out West show is looking for volunteers and anyone interested should contact John Godwin at info@outwestartshow.net or 406-590-1961.

Volunteer made art is also visible downtown throughout the year.

The Building Active Communities Initiative group in Great Falls has been painting crosswalks in downtown for several years.

BACI is a statewide initiative and several years ago, one of the training sessions was in Great Falls, leading a group to work toward building active spaces around the city, particularly in the downtown area.

Colorful crosswalks coming to downtown Great Falls by volunteer painters [2018]

Kim Skornogoski, marketing director for United Way of Cascade County, has been painting crosswalks for years and said that “it’s fun and brings color to downtown, but also makes our community more walkable and more inviting to people. When you have people downtown, that’s’ a boom for business and it’s something young people want to see. The little things all add up.”

The crosswalks play into the larger art efforts in the downtown such as ArtsFest Montana and the signal box art project, with art by local artists on traffic signal boxes throughout the downtown. That’s another project organized by the BID.

“Collectively, our downtown is so much more colorful and I think it really reflects our artistic history as a community with Charlie Russell,” Skornogoski said. “That’s been cool to see.”

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The crosswalks are also an example of “people wanting to see change and saying yes to making it happen,” she said.

Great Falls Mechanical cuts the stencils based on designs by local artists. Highway Specialties donated the paint and the local Sherwin Williams store colored the paint. It takes about five to 10 volunteers about three hours to paint and intersection, Skornogoski said, and volunteers are always welcome.

Internationally known muralist adding art to downtown Great Falls

“Over and over and over again people say ‘yes, I want to a part of that,’” Skornogoski said.

The VolunteerGreatFalls.org website is another example of a small group of people wanting to make a change and making it happen, she said.

The is maintained by United Way, but was initiated by a Leadership Great Falls that had make it their goal to volunteer 1,000 hours during their yearlong program.

The class members found it was just as difficult to find volunteer opportunities as it was to find time to volunteer and they got frustrated when they kept hearing that they weren’t needed.

“So they came to United Way and said, ‘you have all these connections with nonprofits and businesses, you’ve made it easy to give, can you also make it easy to volunteer,'” Skornogoski said.

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The website now has more than 65 local nonprofits posting their volunteer opportunities in one place ranging from events to regular needs such as helping Meals on Wheels.

“It’s been really cool to see the community respond,” Skornogoski said.

Between United Way and the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, which is also through United Way, there were 2,113 volunteers who served more than 17,000 hours in 2020, Skornogoski said.

“To see that kind of effort in our community to give back is impressive and I think that speaks to the overall nature of Great Falls that many people don’t always see,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic required some adaptations for volunteering, but Skornogoski said that their seeing the need pick up again for all kinds of needs.

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“I’ve lived in Great Falls for 20 years and in that time I’ve seen Great Falls change a lot and one of the great things about Great Falls is that people work together to get things done, to make improvements, but also the power of one person,” Skornogoski said. “I’ve also seen how one person or a small group of people who are motivated can really make a difference in Great Falls. There’s a lot of people here who want to see good things happen.”

Among those making things happen is the group putting on the Downtown Summer Jam and Fourth of July Hootenanny.

Scott Reasoner, a partner in Enbär and The Block, said it started with his team working with the Mighty Mo regularly and wanting to find a way to do concerts downtown leading up to opening of The Newberry, which has some of the same partners as those businesses and is opening this fall after a COVID-induced pause.

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The conversation focused on getting a better concert lineup in Great Falls, Reasoner said, and eventually, “we said to heck with it, we’ll just put it right in the street.”

Fourth of July Hootenanny 2019. Courtesy of event organizers.

The concert series launched in 2018 and they kept going in 2019. They were planning for the series when they got a call from a Nashville contact that Granger Smith would be traveling through Montana and had an opening on July 4 “and would we be interested in a show? We knew a lot was going on with the parade and fireworks and we got everyone together really quickly to put together what is now the Fourth of July Hootenanny,” Reasoner said. “It took a lot of effort to put that together the first year. It was so much fun, we said, ‘we gotta keep doing this.'”

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The first Hootenanny drew about 4,000 to 5,000 people downtown, he said, and this year’s concert had a similar turnout.

The Hootenanny is volunteer run and a fundraiser for the Great Falls Symphony.

“It’s not a money maker for us, it’s put on by the donors and businesses who fund it and the volunteers who help us,” Reasoner said. “It’s a huge, huge effort.”

He said the concert always needs volunteers and that there are event throughout the year downtown through the Downtown Great Falls Association that also need volunteers.

Downtown Summer Jam, Hootenanny lineup announced

“We’re just excited about the downtown, it’s a great group of folk and you consistently see more investment coming in,” Reasoner said. “There’s a great energy. If you see cool things that you like and you want more of it, the more people that come to support it, the more it will grow. We don’t view the others as competition, we want and need more density in our downtown. That’s how downtowns thrive. The more crazy people with great ideas, who want to do more in that area, the better it all is for everybody.”

A new festival is launching in Great Falls Sept. 10-12 with several free concerts, sporting and arts events, as well as the Luminaria Walk on the River’s Edge Trail.

“The Big River Ruckus will put Great Falls on the tourist maps as a town that should be visited again and again. When visitors come for three days of music, sports and arts; they will see what a great town we have, with so many things to do,” said Sheila Rice, one of the event organizers.

That event is also in need of volunteers and you can sign up here.

For out of town travelers, it’s the scenic drives that lure them to Great Falls.

That’s the number one activity among overnight guests, according to Rebecca Engum, director of Great Falls Montana Tourism.

“They just love to drive,” she said, and it’s a great destination for motorcyclists, as seen in June when the BMW motorcycle owners rally was held in Great Falls, bringing 4,889 people to the community.

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Day hikes are also popular and Engum said most of the people coming to Great Falls have more disposable income, visit in the off season and are active, mature people.

They come to Great Falls, she said, because those hikes are less crowded than some of the bigger markets in the state.

The city is a “huge recreational shopping area,” Engum said and is popular among Canadians, so the border closure for COVID-19 has hurt that economy.

Others are purchasing their equipment in Great Falls for their activities such as hiking, kayaking, biking and the like.

Wildlife watching and nature photography rounds out the top five activities, Engum said, and museums and historical sites are also popular.

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She said they’re seeing an increase for fishing after years of it ranging from three to four percent of the activity picked by overnight visitors.

Of the people who visit, it’s now up to nine percent and “we suspect that has a lot to do with the crowded rivers in the entry cities, so we think they want better experiences and come to the Great Falls area,” Engum said.

She said that some of their tourism partners across the state are starting to deal with “overtourism” but Great Falls hasn’t hit that point and “we are very cognizant of having stable tourism markets so we don’t have that overtourism which isn’t a great thing to happen. It changes the dynamics of a community.”

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Engum said that in 2019, there were more than 1 million overnight visitors to Great Falls who spent an estimated $168 million in the community.

She said they’re seeing increased room demand this summer in hotels, but also seeing travel sentiment decline nationally as the COVID variants increase and case numbers spike, but expect tourism to start stabilizing in 2022 and 2023 depending on the COVID situation.