VIRGINIA CITY – Madison County would be a great place for the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, but the selection committee that met with citizens Friday is still a long way from deciding between the six final communities.
But wherever the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center decides to set down roots, it will be looking for a community willing to work with the organization to see it come to fruition, said Aaron Lyles, director of finance for the hall of fame.
“It’s really a partnership driven attitude we want to impart today,” Lyles told the crowd of about 30 gathered at the Madison County Courthouse.
The Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center was formed with state legislation passed in 2003, he explained. The legislation directed the hall of fame to be built in Wolf Point.
To that end, the Wolf Point Chamber of Commerce donated 30 acres for the project, but nothing was ever built.
Last spring, the Montana Legislature passed new legislation saying the hall of fame could be built anywhere in the state. Late this summer communities around the state interested in housing the hall of fame were invited to submit proposals to the site selection committee.
Madison County is one of six finalists. The other towns still in the running for the hall of fame are Big Timber, Livingston, Wolf Point, Miles City and Big Sky.
Friday’s meeting was the first chance Madison County had to make its case in person to the selection committee.
Madison County is unique among the finalists as it has presented three possible site locations for the hall of fame: Ennis Rodeo grounds, land adjacent to the Madison Valley History Association museum west of Ennis and the Montana Children’s Center in Twin Bridges.
Friday’s presentation to the selection committee featured some brief history about Madison County along with reasons the hall of fame should be built here.
Madison County really served as an historical crossroads for this part of the country even before white miners and cattleman moved here, said Dan Thyer, director of the Nevada City Living History Museum.
Several Native American tribes used the Madison and Ruby Valleys for hunting and later the cattlemen that came to feed the burgeoning mining population in Virginia City found excellent range land around the county.
“The (Montana) drovers and the cattlemen – lets not make any bones about it – they all got their start here in Alder Gulch,” Thyer said.
In fact, throughout history people have been drawn to Madison County, said Les Gilman, who is a Ruby Valley rancher and member of the Madison County Economic Development Council.
“We’ve never had to build anything here in Madison County to get people to come here,” Gilman said.
It used to be the mining and ranching that drew people to the area, now it’s the natural beauty, wildlife and agricultural lifestyle that bring people in, he said. Today, people from around the country come to Madison County for things like world class flyfishing, hunting and the cultural heritage found in Virginia and Nevada Cities.
“(The hall of fame) would be one more tool in the bucket to draw visitors here,” Gilman said.
Most importantly, the people in Madison County have exhibited an ability to get things done, said Sam Korsmoe, executive director of MCEDC.
For examples, Korsmoe pointed to significant county events, like Sheridan Days, Ennis on the Madison Fly Fishing Festival and the Madison Marathon. He also referred to significant projects like the Madison Valley Medical Center and the Ruby Valley Hospital Foundation.
Getting together as a community to support and fund a major project like the hall of fame is something Madison County has proven it can do, Korsmoe said.
“There’s no trepidation in doing this because we know we can get it done,” he said.
It was a sentiment echoed by Bob Wagner, House District 71 representative from Harrison.
“When you talk about getting it done and volunteerism, my county shines,” Wagner said.
However, Madison County citizens need not worry about convincing the committee it would be a good home for the hall of fame, Lyles said.
“You’re a finalist because we bought into Madison County,” he said.
In fact, each of the final communities the selection committee is looking at can lay claim to Montana heritage and culture. So the discussion needs to be refocused on specifics about land and community support.
“What we realized very quickly is we need to put a fence around the heritage conversation,” Lyles said.
In the presentation and written proposal, Korsmoe has communicated that Madison County is a very community oriented location with the ability to focus their attention on big projects.
“It demonstrates you guys understand how to leverage the resources you have for the benefit of your community,” he said.
The plan for the hall of fame project has been broken out into three phases and would entail a unique visitor experience. Phase 1 would be the heart of the hall of fame and heritage center, which would be about a 34,000 square foot facility. Phase 2 would be a convention hall and theater. Phase 3 would include open corrals for livestock demonstrations along with stables and a convenience store.
The ultimate goal is to raise about $50 million for the project, Lyles said. However, the more realistic expectations is somewhere in the realm of $30 million. The hall of fame has already contracted a firm to help with fundraising, which will be a statewide and national effort.
The community where the hall of fame is built will expect to help with an initial fundraising push, he said. This is where community support for the project and fundraising capabilities will be an important key to the selection committee’s decision, Lyles said.
Key to the decision will be a deal for land to build the project. In the Madison County proposal both the history association and the Ennis Rodeo Association are proposing leasing options. The Montana Children’s Center is for sale for $1.9 million.
Leasing land to build the hall of fame is problematic because of the way a museum facility works, he said.
The value in a museum is artifacts, but these are typically owned by the museum, Lyles said. So to be able to leverage assets to help build the project, land ownership is important.
“The lease option is problematic, that’s what you’re saying,” Korsmoe said.
Moving forward, it would be helpful if the county could figure out the best of the three locations for the committee to consider. Right now, the Ennis Rodeo Association land is the best option for the committee because it’s close to Ennis and city services and is bare land, which will be cheaper to develop, Lyles said. However, no location is off the table.
Lyles was very direct that Friday’s meeting was just the beginning of the discussion between Madison County and the selection committee.
After the meeting, Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz said it’s time for people around the county to figure out how they want to move forward with the selection committee.
“There are sites in Madison County that they find better suited than others,” Schulz said. And yet I think it’s still got to be a Madison County decision or the people’s decision in which priority site goes forward. As a group Madison County has to sit down and have a very serious discussion about what is our next step.”
The initial time frame of selecting a site for the hall of fame by the end of November has been pushed back somewhat, Lyles said. With all the deliberations needed with the six communities still in the running, the committee will be lucky to have a site selected by the end of the year.