Posted: Monday, April 19, 2004 - 01:29 PM

Economy and Business A person, a place, an art auction and a task force took home Montana Tourism Awards from the Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Recreation Tuesday. The four awards were handed out for outstanding contributions to the state’s travel industry. A special panel of representatives of the state’s tourism industry selected the winners.

Chris Kortlander of Garryowen was named Tourism Person of the Year for 10 years of indefatigable efforts to enhance the attraction of his community and the Custer Battlefield Museum. Kortlander purchased Garryowen in 1993 when it was no more than a ruin and led efforts to create a thriving community there. He presides over the museum, educating visitors on the history surrounding the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He also promotes tourism in the surrounding region by serving on the Custer Country Board of Directors and working with tribal elders, local ranchers and tourism operators.

“”He’s very energetic when it comes to making improvements,” said Chip Watts, owner of 7th Ranch Historical Tours and RV Camp in Garryowen. “Chris does business on an even keel and doesn’t shy away from anybody. He’s a good business person to have around.”

Kortlander founded and built the Custer Battlefield Museum and an accompanying convenience store, gas station and rest stop. He restored the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Garryowen, which honors one of the first men to die in the battle, established a state-sanctioned information center along Interstate 90, built the Peace Memorial Monument in front of the museum, and organized the 125th anniversary commemoration of the battle.

Malta and Phillips County were selected as Tourism Community of the Year. Officials of the Missouri River Country tourism region nominated the town and county for the creativity and innovation used in promoting tourism and the way the community takes full advantage of its assets without compromising its quality of life. The nomination particularly praised cooperation between the Fort Belknap Indian communities, the Lewistown and Malta Chambers of Commerce, Montana Audubon Society, Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge, Bureau of Land Management, PhillCo Economic Growth Council, the Judith River Foundation and other groups.

In addition to thousands of dollars of public and private resources donated to the cause of tourism in the town and county, an estimated 4,000 hours of volunteer work by residents was contributed.

“We felt that Malta has gone the extra mile in promoting tourism,” said Carla Hunsley, Executive Secretary of the Missouri River Country tourism region, one of the nominators, “not only for the benefit of Malta but for the benefit of Missouri River Country, and we felt they are deserving of the award.”

Among the innovative events held in Malta are the Milk River Gospel Jamboree, set for June 25-27, and Dino Days, celebrating the region’s wealth of dinosaur remains, also in June. The area’s top tourist destinations include the Dinosaur Field Station, which offers a close-up of fossil and skeleton preparation and the Phillips County Museum, which gives equal time and exposure to dinosaurs and outlaws.

The work of a task force developed to combat negative publicity in the wake of the 2003 forest fires was also honored. The task force included representatives of the Flathead and Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureaus, Glacier Country tourism region, the National Park Service, Big Mountain Resort, Montana Commerce Department’s Travel Montana program and public relations professionals from Missoula and Whitefish.

The task force provided information to media outlets to combat the notion that all of Glacier National Park and most of Montana was on fire and other misconceptions. Daily fire updates were e-mailed to tourism-related businesses to keep them abreast of the situation and of evacuations so they could reroute travelers to unaffected areas. Real time video of smoke and fire conditions and clear skies were made available on websites.

The 36th C. M. Russell Auction of Original Western Art took honors as the Tourism Event of the Year for the way it ties together art and tourism. Articles on the event have appeared in Sunset Magazine, National Geographic, Cowboys and Indians magazine, and many more publications. Attendance has been growing. In 2003, ticket sales topped $92,000 and the event is credited with bringing millions of dollars to the Great Falls economy. Many attendees book their accommodations a year ahead of time.

Janet Medina, Executive Director of the Great Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau, a nominator for the award, said the atmosphere of the four-day weekend in March lights up the Electric City.

The whole town’s sold out,” Medina said, regarding overnight accommodations in Great Falls, which counts more than 2,000 rooms among its hotels and inns. “It’s a fervor that just strikes the town. You have to be there to experience it.”

Other nominators cited the auction for its ability to counter the notion that Montana is lacking in culture and arts-related activities.

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