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Recognizing a small town’s big efforts

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Montana is abundant with gems of small towns full of authentic Western culture and residents who value old-fashioned principles of community and hard work. But over the last few decades many of these towns have experienced dwindling populations as a result of cattle operations mechanizing and logging and mining industries declining. One Southwest Montana town shines as a model of perseverance: Philipsburg, Montana (population 810 and growing), whose residents reinvented their town from a dying mining community to a vibrant and nationally recognized travel destination.

Last month Sunset magazine awarded Philipsburg the winner of its Best Municipal Makeover travel award.

When we first heard about the magazine’s inaugural travel award competition that was created to honor excellence and innovation in the tourism industry across the Western U.S. and Canada, we immediately thought Philipsburg could be a worthy candidate in the Best Municipal Makeover category. But, we didn’t know how it would compete among larger municipalities that would surely be throwing their names in the ring. On behalf of our client Southwest Montana Tourism, we went for it. JB1_PBurg_award_5959_300px

In order to compete it was important for us to paint a picture of what Philipsburg looked like in its bleakest decades of the ‘70s and ‘80s — boarded-up buildings and businesses and empty houses — and tell its makeover story. The fascinating story started with secret, nighttime flower box plantings and eventually inspired the community to restore its downtown main street — painting their historic Victorian buildings from sun up to sun down, neighbor helping neighbor. And soon more projects followed. The community restored its elementary school, the oldest operating elementary school building in Montana with some of the nicest classrooms in the state, and the local Rotary built an NHL-size ice hockey rink. Along the way the effort and energy attracted entrepreneurs and families as well as tourists.

In interviewing and listening to community members, the story just came alive. Kind of like downtown Pburg.

In February, Philipsburg was selected as a travel award finalist and indeed was competing against much larger urban centers, particularly Alameda, Sacramento and Ventura, California, and Reno, Nevada. In Sunset’s June issue, the magazine named Philipsburg the category winner, and the town was again featured last month at Sunset’s travel booth at its Celebration Weekend in Menlo Park, California, a hugely popular event attended by 21,000 people.

Philipsburg didn’t need an elaborate, official “city initiative” or the assistance of federal or state funds to reinvent itself. It just needed its people … and cans of paint. This small town proves that even in the modern age, hard work and determination can still win. And while the residents take joy daily in their bright and pretty main street businesses and bulging flower boxes, there is something great about getting recognized.

summer in downtown Philipsburg, MontanaIf you’ve yet to visit Philipsburg, take the Interstate 90 exit at Drummond and drive south a half hour to discover this gem of a town, including one of the West’s largest candy stores, gemstone panning operations, summer theatre and much more. Click here to read Sunset’s announcement. And if you’re as much of a fan of Philipsburg as we are, post to Facebook your favorite Pburg experience.

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