Glacier National Park’s centennial summer is winding down. Restaurants and gift shops are beginning to close. Campgrounds are transitioning to primitive status. The steady line of vehicles winding its way up the Going-to-the-Sun Road has begun to thin. While the changes are typical, this was no ordinary summer; it was a season dedicated to celebrating the 100th anniversary of the park’s creation. And so, after two years of planning Glacier Park’s centennial, the obvious question arises: Was it a success?
“Overall, yes,” Kass Hardy, Glacier Park’s centennial coordinator, said. “I certainly think it was more successful than we could have hoped or even planned for.”
Hardy is not alone. According to interviews with several officials representing tourism and business organizations throughout northwest Montana, the Glacier Park centennial provided a much-needed boost – not only to the Flathead’s economy – but to its morale as well.
“These community celebrations were a positive in our down economy,” Carol Pike, executive director of the Columbia Falls area Chamber of Commerce, said. “Downtown shops felt that they had a much better year this year.”
According to Jan Metzmaker, executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau, resort tax revenue was up 12 percent in July, though it’s difficult to attribute that entirely to the centennial.
Racene Friede, executive director of Glacier Country Tourism, said that although hard data on visitation numbers are not yet available, “we’re expecting to see strong visitor numbers throughout the region.”
For Glacier Park Inc., the park’s main concessionaire running its hotels and restaurants, “reservations are going along at a nice pace this year and we have been thrilled at the number of visitors in and around the park this summer,” Alicia Thompson, GPI’s director of marketing and business relations, said. “Plus, September looks strong for lodging reservations and we’re pleased to report that discretionary income spending on activities and retail is slightly higher over last year.”
But for Hardy and other organizers of Glacier’s centennial, criteria for success is not based solely upon its economic impact, but upon the ways in which the 100th anniversary renewed connections between visitors to the park stretching back decades, as well as with communities surrounding the park.
“That was really a part of our vision,” Hardy said, “that it would enhance the connections that people already have to encourage them to be longer lasting.”
Different art contests and events invited artists into the park, both adults and students, to share in the long creative tradition of rendering Glacier’s landscapes. Other events brought together former park workers, like the reunion of red jammer bus drivers scheduled for this week. Metzmaker, who also served as chairwoman of the centennial’s events committee, recalled the scene at a reunion of trail crews this summer: “You could see it in everybody’s eyes: that connection to the park,” she said. “In that respect I think it was very successful.”
Key to many of these events, Hardy and others noted, was that they were free, making them accessible to nearly everyone, whether it was Columbia Falls extending its Heritage Days celebration to a full week or a symposium on Glacier’s history at Flathead Valley Community College.
Jane Ratzlaff, executive director of the Glacier National Park Fund, said the centennial helped increase donations for major “Legacy Projects,” like the new handicapped-accessible trail around Swiftcurrent Lake. Such projects also required volunteers to donate their time and energy – beyond simply cutting a check.
“It was a great way of showing that we can not only celebrate Glacier, but give resources and time,” Matzlaff said. “A couple of these Legacy Projects were geared, not only for the fund to raise money, but to engage people.”
Hardy also believes the centennial summer renewed relationships between Glacier Park and the surrounding communities, in ways mundane but meaningful, like having park employees march in July 4 parades. Of the products licensed to tie in with the centennial, Hardy said 83 percent were made in Montana. Throughout 2009, Hardy and other organizers held listening sessions to give surrounding communities an investment in the celebration.
One of her concerns now is how to keep these renewed ties between the park and Flathead communities strong, once the centennial has passed.
“How do you ensure that people still have access to that relationship?” Hardy said. “I think that’s going to be one of the biggest challenges moving forward.”
In 2016, the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th birthday, and Glacier’s centennial is now being used as a model for the centennial of other national parks and the park service, from its branding to the way Glacier used social media like Facebook and Twitter to keep visitors updated on events.
“Other parks are starting to mimic exactly what we’re doing here,” Hardy said, “which shows us that it’s been a big success.”
Nor is the centennial over. At Kalispell’s Hockaday Museum, paintings by the artist John Fery are on display, along with Chris Peterson’s photography exhibit on the park, “100 Years, 100 Days.” In East Glacier, the Great Northern Railway Historical Society Convention is holding its annual convention at the Glacier Park Lodge, and centennial events continue through Oct. 30, when geologist Dan Fagre will be giving a talk in Apgar. For a full listing of events, check out: http://www.glaciercentennial.org/
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