Sunday, April 03, 2005

Desperate Times Call For Desperate Tourism

As the northern plains continue to depopulate, remaining residents are desperate to find any way to keep their towns alive. Naturally enough I suppose, many towns along the Missouri River are counting on the bicentennial of the Lewis & Clark Expedition to save them. Towns from Fort Benton, Montana to Washburn, North Dakota are building interpretative centers and other facilities to prepare for the influx of tourists that will save their dying communities.

Unfortunately, it’s not going to work. Yes these towns will likely see an influx of tourists through next year. And even for the few years after Lewis & Clark buffs will show up. But after that, how many jobs is tourism going to bring to rural North Dakota? Not many. While I would grab onto the tourist dollars if I were them too, it’s just not going to happen. Tourism can only save a community if it’s a place that a lot of people are going to want to visit over a long period of time. This has worked in places like Aspen, Santa Fe, Taos, and Jackson Hole.

Then again, is this what the residents of Great Falls want? While tourism can save the economy of a community, it also can change the community in great ways. Local people can’t even afford to live in Aspen and Santa Fe today.

So where does that leave Fort Benton and Washburn? More or less in the same boat they were in before. Is it sad that the towns of the western plains are dying? Maybe. But let’s face it, those areas are not designed to hold a large number of people. The climate is cold and very dry. It’s hundreds of miles away from major markets. There’s nothing you can grow there, assuming there’s enough water to grow anything, that you can’t grow cheaper in other places. The story of white settlement in the western plains is fascinating. But whether it should be a settled place is another story. And soon enough, it’s not likely to be.