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Becoming "Rural Tourism Ready": Cut Bank, Montana's Journey

Looking east on the Cut Bank Coulee Trail: photo credit Lisa Cline


There has been a quiet movement building in our little town in north central Montana. It started several years ago when a local group of engaged citizens participated in MSU Extension’s Reimagining Rural program. They learned that “rural” is changing not dying, big things can be accomplished with or without committees, and that many small communities in Montana are already dreaming big. Communities participating in the program were eligible to apply for a grant up to $2,000. A savvy local couple with a background in marketing suggested the grant money be used toward a “branding project”. Full disclosure… three years ago I didn’t even know what branding was, other than the kind I grew up with on the ranch. So, if you can identify with my ignorance, here is a simple definition: Branding is the process of creating a strong, positive perception….in the customer’s mind by combining such elements as logo, mission statement and a consistent design throughout all communications. (oberlo.com) The initial Reimaging Rural grant monies were saved until more funds could be accumulated to carry out a branding project. In addition to the Reimagining Rural grant, the project was supported by local stakeholders, the City of Cut Bank, and Glacier Country Tourism. In 2023, Rebel River Creative was hired to do a deep dive into our community tourism assets, gather feedback from residents and visitors, design a brandmark, and make recommendations to local stakeholders to increase the visibility of our unique area. Cut Bank now has a clean professional “brand”. Furthermore, the entire deck of information became an integral part of future grant proposals.


Reimaging Rural lit a fire that continues to burn. The 2022 grant funds were used to host a Community Connection Expo. Groups of volunteers engaged in downtown façade improvement, the City flowerpots were rejuvenated, and community clean up events were held. As the Reimagining Rural group continued to meet, interpret data collected during the branding project, and listen to both visitors and locals alike, it became clear that Cut Bank has many treasures, but unfortunately, they are hidden treasures. The next step seemed obvious: wayfinding signage. A grant was submitted to the Montana Main Street Project. Three grants were awarded statewide, and Cut Bank is the proud recipient of funds to complete the wayfinding project. Additionally, a Discover Cut Bank website is in the works.


Recently, Cut Bank was also awarded a First Impressions Tourism grant from MSU Extension Community Vitality Program. Sometime between June and September, 5 groups of “mystery guests” will visit Cut Bank, explore its amenities and businesses, then fill out a comprehensive questionnaire. From this information, we can learn what guests love about our area, what is lacking, and what can be improved.


Several other projects are in the works. Since Cut Bank qualifies as an under-visited, tourism-ready community we were eligible to apply for the Pilot Community Tourism Grant, recently funded by the Montana State Legislature. If awarded, this grant can help develop and improve the town’s tourism assets. Those grants will be awarded mid-June. Conversations have been held with the Montana Community foundation, and plans are in the works to create an LCF (local community foundation). This non-profit organization will give people who want to support Cut Bank the opportunity to invest in its future.


So, why does all this matter? Rural is not dying, its changing. Locals and guests love rural experiences, and their priorities are very similar. Both groups want to feel safe, valued, and engaged. Both can contribute to the prosperity of a community. Clean, vibrant communities become safer communities to live in and to visit. Being treated with courtesy and compassion is a basic human need, so a hospitality mindset would benefit us all. Residents and guests both appreciate opportunities to engage in unique local experiences. That’s a challenge if those experiences are tucked away out of sight.



Lack of quality lodging is an issue. Being a tourism ready community will make Cut Bank a more attractive option for lodging entities. If an environment is created where people feel safe, valued, and engaged, they will stick around, whether it be a few days or a few years. spend some dollars and contribute to the prosperity of our community. Folks might not feel awestruck when they visit Cut Bank, but they can feel at home. We love our True Montana town. Let’s get ready to share it.


Lisa Cline

Community Advocate

Co-owner/manager of Marketplace on Main

 

 

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2 Comments


Such a well written story of the phenomenal journey Cut Bank has been on over the past few years. We at MSU Extension Community Vitality are so honored to have played a part. We can't wait to see where you go from here.

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Thanks, Tara. You have played a huge part in leading us toward “tourism readiness”. I grew up in rural MT and it never occurred to me that “rural” and “tourism” belonged in the same sentence.

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