BILLINGS — Businesses and government officials in eastern Montana increasingly are pinning their hopes on tourism now that the recent oil boom has subsided.
Drilling in the Bakken shale in nearby North Dakota pumped millions into the economy of eastern Montana before falling off a few years ago. Now, cities in the area now are working to improve tourist attractions and trying to use newly built hotel rooms to attract groups and events.
The state collected $3.5 million in lodging taxes in Eastern Montana in the first nine months of this year, the Billings Gazette reported. The Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development reported that’s down 6 percent from last year.
The 4-percent lodging tax on room rentals supports state tourism promotion and local conventions and visitors bureaus. Local groups are using money to highlight amenities and businesses that might entice visitors into Eastern Montana.
Katelynne Eslick operates The Sugar Plum jewelry store in downtown Glendive. She launched the business about three years ago after operating out of her home.
Eslick said she sees an increase of tourism in the summer months. Visitors are seeking authenticity in their visit to Montana, she said, and boost sales at her business.
“Tourists would come in and say, ‘Do you have Montana agate pieces? Do you have yogo sapphire silver? … I think there’s something about ‘Made in Montana,'” Eslick said.
A few blocks away, the Enchanted Living store is its own draw for traveling quilters. Owners Laura Glueckert and Myrna Quale opened the new store in a remodeled church two years ago and have operated their original shop, Enchanted Room, for decades.
“Quilters have a following, and they plan their trips,” Glueckert said. Improvements to a nearby Makoshika State Park and increasing regional tourism in general would be a big boost to business, she said.
“It’s an important draw. The badlands, the dinosaur park, bringing families to the area,” she said. “We are very much advocating improvements to Makoshika.”
At Makoshika, supporters are seeking money for additional improvements, including a new, $3-million full-service campground and potable water to be piped in from nearby Glendive.
About 77,000 visitors come to Makoshika annually. Rep. Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield, plans to sponsor a bill in the 2017 legislative session to fund improvements at the park.
Brenda Maas is marketing manager for Visit Southeast Montana, a 13-county region that stretches from Billings to the North Dakota border. She said people want to visit the area because of “that Montana mystique.”
“Tourists want a more authentic experience,” Maas said. “They want to eat where the locals eat.”
Elsewhere in Eastern Montana, visitors have declined, but tourism officials remain optimistic.
The numbers of hotels in Sidney more than doubled during the oil boom, but times are tougher now, locals say.
“They definitely would like more rooms to be booked. It’s a little slow for the hotel industry now,” said Laura Schieber, interim director of the Sidney Area Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture.
The city of about 6,500 people saw six new hotels earlier this decade to accommodate workers and oil executives who wanted to be near the Bakken, Schieber said. Sidney now has 10 hotels and more than 500 rooms, she said.
None of the Sidney hotels has closed, despite the drop in business. Schieber said the added supply has been a boost for major school sports tournaments. The tournaments attract hundreds of out-of-town fans who had struggled to find rooms in years past, she said.
In Miles City, locals are recognizing the value of visitor dollars for the local economy.
“They’re happy that people are here, and that’s a draw in itself,” said John Laney, director of the Miles City Area Chamber of Commerce.
Businesses in Miles City realize they can’t attract visitors on their own. Boosting tourism is a regional effort for all of Eastern Montana, Laney said. “If we’re going to make it, we’re going to have to make it together,” he said.
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