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New West Glacier Visitor Center Showcases The Flathead's Other Attractions

Visitor center attendant Hugh Austin stands behind the information desk at the old Belton Train Station in West Glacier. The visitor center is staffed 1-5pm, 7 days a week, and will provide Glacier visitors information on activities around the Flathead.
Corin Cates-Carney
Visitor center attendant Hugh Austin stands behind the information desk at the old Belton Train Station in West Glacier. The visitor center is staffed 1-5pm, 7 days a week, and will provide Glacier visitors information on activities around the Flathead.

A new visitor information center in West Glacier opened Tuesday to show Glacier National Park visitors what else Montana has to offer.

The Whitefish, Bigfork and Columbia Falls Chambers of Commerce will join forces to share expenses and staff the center this summer.

Whitefish Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kevin Gartland says the Chambers' goal is to turn additional information about the Flathead Valley into a boost in the local economy.

"Glacier is the engine that drives our tourism economy here in the Flathead, especially during the summer-time months. They are the focal point and the rest of us are bit players in their act, Glacier is the star. And we look for this visitor center to help us let folks who are coming specifically to see Glacier National Park know the other things we offer in the Flathead."

The visitor center’s first year is an experiment put together rather quickly. The setup is a small booth in the corner of the Glacier National Park Conservancy book store in the old Belton Train Station. Gartland says the opportunity appeared this spring when space appeared in the Conservancy's book store. Local chambers had to work within already established budgets to find funds for the center’s opening.

Other towns in the area may join in the visitor center in the future when it can be planned into yearly budgets.

Center attendant Hue Austin helped out the first guest at the information both, Linda Wilshusen when she got off an Amtrak train from Portland this morning.

"This is the only place I have ever been in Montana, so we’re starting here and then were going to the park, and then we're coming back and staying somewhere around here, around Columbia falls, so then we'll both fly out of Kalispell. So I'm totally new, I just walked in here. [Speaking with booth attendant] I came in this morning on the train and I’m looking to find out information about hikes…"

Wilshusen says she’ll hang around the park for about a week but doesn’t have a definite schedule yet.

The Whitefish Chamber’s Kevin Gartland.

"It’s a matter of getting them comfortable with where they’re going. Most folks are coming to Montana, they’re not coming to sit inside the house. They're not coming here to do the usual or traditional, they’re coming to explore things. They really want to find out more about our communities and that is the type of visitor that we have here in Northwestern Montana. They want a feel for what life is like here and what the locals are doing. They love our events. They love our farmers markets. They want to be a part of the community and feel like they've discovered something. And we try to make that happen."

The information center allows glacier visitors to preview their options for entertainment and travel.

Michelle Martino runs a small bed and breakfast outside of Bigfork. She contacted her local Chamber of Commerce asking about the opportunity of promoting her business at the new visitor center.

She made brochures available at the booth. Martino holds up the card with the dream-catcher logo over a backdrop of Lake McDonald.

"Bed and breakfast experience amid the Swan Mountain forest at the foot of Glacier National Park. Pure Montana. And the backside just gives a description of our rooms and how all four rooms are themed after wildlife that is indigenous to the area."

Martino hasn’t had much trouble filling her rooms for the rest of the summer. But the information center isn’t designed to bring more people to the area. It’s built for people who are already here and to give those people enough information so that they will enjoy their stay enough to come back.

"This is the way people buy second homes," says Kevin Gartland of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce. "This is the way people decide to move their family somewhere and start a business or work somewhere. And all those things are kind of secondary strategies for us because we are looking at economic development. And economic develop isn’t just tourism, it's taking those folks who are coming here on vacation and showing them that they can actually make a living here, run a business here, earn a living here, and raise a family. And it all kind of comes together."

The Dream Catcher Lodge’s Michelle Martino is an example of someone who was originally living in another state, California, and saw Montana as a place she wanted to live. She also saw a business opportunity.

Flathead County continues to become a place where people come to visit, and sometimes stay permanently.

The county's estimated population increased 20 percent from 2000 to 2009.
The population in Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls all grew more than 37 percent over the same period, making them three of the top five fastest growing cities in Montana.

The new visitor center in West Glacier will be staffed in the afternoons,  seven days a week.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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