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Do something now

| May 24, 2006 12:00 AM

I'm not much of a "build it and they will come" person.

There's more to it than that.

Therefore I don't see the proposed downtown revitalization plan as a save-all effort to downtown Libby. Not by itself.

Neither do I see the revitalization proposal as a yuppification of an old logging and mining town.

I do see it as change and that's something this community knows about but consistently tries to fight. Which I find very odd. In the 1930s, if you go back and read the bound pages of this newspaper, you will find story after story and editorial after editorial espousing a lot of what people in this community have been trying to do since the first Dream It, Do It meeting more than three years ago.

Back in the 1930s, groups, as well as this newspaper, were advocating diversification of our economy and the embracing of some forms of tourism. Like today, they weren't advocating replacing logging and mining with tourism, they were calling for further diversification of the local economy. And they were advocating "sprucing up" the community, including the downtown.

Building pleasant surroundings, the downtown project, is not enough. It has to work. And only the citizens of this community — both in and out of the city limits can make that happen.

Economic development people talk about our horrendous retail leakage - people going to Kalispell, Sandpoint, Spokane and Missoula to shop. The other day somebody was overheard joking we don't have retail leakage, it's more like a tidal wave. I've heard figures as high as 60 percent.

Here's what I know: For a downtown — revitalized or not to work — it takes the entire economic trade base and not just the downtown merchants and businesses to make it work. If people aren't comfortable coming downtown, they won't. Basically they have to like it and what it offers.

Now the trade base area served by all Libby businesses is about 11,000 people. Think about it. People ask all the time what the population of Libby is. Well, the population of the city is about 3,000 people but the surrounding area served by the community is about 11,000. They might not all come here to shop in anything more than Pamida and Rosauers, and take advantage of government services, but they do come here.

Here's what the latest Census says: The Libby area has a higher percentage of people 65 and over than both the State of Montana and the United States. People in that age category need easy places to park, and safe places to walk. The sidewalks can't be cracked, broken and infested with tufts of grass and weeds for people to trip over. You can't expect anybody to wander the downtown sidewalks on 95+ degree days of July and August, either. There's no place to hide from the sun.

Living in a ski resort town, I learned one thing about tourists: They love to go where the locals go and enjoy what the locals enjoy. In other words, tourists like to fit in as much as possible in beautiful mountain towns.

What I'm trying to say in too many words is we need to build it but build for ourselves.

I don't think there's too many business people in the area who would disagree with the position we need to do something. Yes we are enjoying a economic boom of sorts thanks to real estate and construction but it too has highs and lows, booms and busts. And we can't start worrying about what's next when the low or bust occurs. You do that during the highs.

One thing I know for certain, nobody would be complaining about the revitalization plan if it wasn't going to cost anybody one cent.

So here's what I propose: Let's slow down a second and consider the funding of this proposal. How do we spread out the cost to not only 11,000 people but to the tourists coming through the community?

Yes, we have tourists. The Libby Area Chamber of Commerce is reporting more than 5,000 tourists a year coming into the visitors center. Bed tax numbers from the state showed we had a 49 percent increase in collections at local motels up until the year 2000 but then it leveled off. That might be the effects of the asbestos cleanup. I say might because we don't know for sure. That is easily countered by marketing, something I alluded to in the beginning of this tome as you can build it but that doesn't mean they will come. Unless you tell them.

There are many ways to finance community improvements. Why not list those ways either in a public meeting or work session and ask the business community, the residents and the entire trade base area to respond. We have nothing to lose but some time, and the way things are going downtown, we seem to have plenty of that. And we need to tap into that federal presence that has been here since 1999 promising to help us with our economy.— Roger Morris