By Brad Reynolds

Being a small business owner presents its obvious challenges. You have corporations to compete with. You have customers to entice. And, as the saying goes, your success is (at least somewhat) dependent on “location, location, location.”

The best location, logically, is on the road most travelled; real estate on a community’s main street offers the greatest opportunity to reach customers. Even e-commerce can’t beat the instant gratification or convenience of buying local.

People will always shop Main Street.

…That is, so long as they know it’s there.

In 2015, the town of Choteau recognized an unusual phenomenon. Travelers along Highway 287 weren’t taking the roundabout on Main anymore, and thus, weren’t stopping to support local business. To make matters worse, they were instead using 7th Avenue Northwest, the road past Choteau Elementary. Incidents of people ignoring the posted 15mph speed limit were becoming frequent. In more ways than one, Choteau’s future was at risk.

The community needed to get to the bottom of this.

“I used to work at the local hotel, and people would stop in and ask about a gas station or other stores,” explains Tom Frownfelder, current Choteau Chamber President and City Deputy Clerk.

With some questioning, he discovered why visitors weren’t finding local amenities; their phones had led them astray.

“We have had a hard time with Google Maps, among other good mapping systems,” Frownfelder explains. “I have tried to make edits on Google Maps, but they just move traffic over one street.”

Frownfelder isn’t the only concerned citizen. Local business owners have been instrumental in the fight, and Choteau’s entire fourth grade class (2019) even petitioned Google Maps to route traffic back to Main.

“They have been writing letters and emails to Google, and asked City Council if they could install more signs and speed bumps,” says Frownfelder with pride.

Four years have passed since the problem was initially discovered, and still the battle is ongoing. Currently, the city is working with the Montana Department of Transportation to get additional road signs put up.

In the meantime, it’s up to locals to coax travelers down Main. And it’s up to travelers to unshackle themselves from technology. If they’d stop trusting their phones and start trusting their eyes, they’d see that there’s plenty in Choteau worth stopping for.