By Suzanne Waring

After Paris Gibson, founder of Great Falls, set eyes on the landscape that became the city, he wrote that the area in 1882 was beautiful, and he knew that its assets – water power and natural resources – would make a thriving city. In six short years this soon-to-be village grew in population and became incorporated. It was obvious a consolidated voice of civic leaders was needed to promote growth and community development. In 1888, the forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, called the Board of Trade, was founded as a non- partisan organization. The leaders brought with them to this Montana community: culture, social values, economic foresight and experience. All were attributes that made the Board of Trade successful.

From the onset, this organization’s leaders knew becoming a commercial and transportation hub for the surrounding area was crucial to community growth and their businesses.

It was easy for the members to focus on these specific tasks: supporting statehood, asking the territorial governor for appropriations to pay for stocking fish in the Missouri River, developing the city’s waterworks, urging the government to build a land office in Great Falls, requesting the railroad to improve the depot from the remodeled boxcar that was housing it, and urging the military installation at Fort Assiniboine be moved to Great Falls. The Board of Trade also supported and worked toward good schools in new buildings which were needed as the town grew. These tasks covered broad areas, such as an educated workforce, tourism, community enhancement, governmental presence, transportation, economic development, and growth in population.

In 1912, the Board of Trade changed its name to the Commercial Club and took on a huge project. The Club contributed time and money to secure finalization of a federal plan to construct the Sun River Irrigation project, resulting in providing irrigation to as much as 300,000 acres of land. Aspects of this project went on for almost thirty years. Civic leaders reasoned that commodities grown by the population on these new irrigated farms would lower the local cost of living, stimulate business, and improve the tax base in Great Falls Sun River area farmers were not as enthusiastic as the Commercial Club. During difficult years they could not pay for maintenance or their annual payment for construction of the irrigation system. Pushing ahead, club leaders wanted farmers to raise sugar beets, driving a need for a sugar beet factory in Great Falls. Instead, alfalfa became the chief cash crop. The Sun River project brought only modest changes to Great Falls’ economy in the short term but has definitely been advantageous to the area on the long term.

When the Commercial Club, through the efforts of Paris Gibson, merged with several other organizations, i.e., the Great Falls Bureau of Information, Electric City Club, Real Estate and Men’s Exchange, the Merchant’s Association, and the Builder’s Exchange, the organization with a larger and more diverse membership served as one mouthpiece for the community and fostered better connections within the local business community. It was called the Board of Commerce for a time but eventually settled out as the Great Falls Chamber of Commerce in 1926. The word “Area” was added to the name in 1972, making the thrust of The Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce to include more than the city itself.

During those first years, if it had not been for the railroad, Great Falls may not have become a major trade center. Paris Gibson, President of the Board of Trade 1890-1892, convinced railroad magnet, J. J. Hill, to build a railroad hub in the community. With four different railroads coming into Great Falls, many types of industry could be developed. As an early example of a task the Chamber took on, 7,000 circulars were mailed, encouraging wool growers to store their wool for free in a Great Falls warehouse and then send it on the railroad to sell collectively, thus enjoying better prices. This brought more business to Great Falls.

Like the prior example, many achievements of the Chamber are taken for granted. For instance, in 1928, the Chamber started negotiations with Nancy Russell for the purchase of the Russell property which included Charlie Russell’s studio. They raised the money to pay Nancy $20,000 and then turned over the property to the city’s Park Board. For years, the Chamber had a Russell Memorial Committee. It wasn’t until 1991 that the administration at the C. M. Russell Museum took over the ownership of the Russell complex. Since the opening of the Russell studio in 1930, the C. M. Russell Museum has continued to be a visitor draw to Great Falls.

Early in the 1950s, the Chamber campaigned to develop Highway 200 between Great Falls and Missoula. They even promoted having the Alaska Highway paved. Both campaigns were eventually successful.
The year 1968 was a banner year with many tasks within the Chamber’s goals, such as urging Senator Mike Mansfield to find federal monies to build a larger passenger terminal at the airport—which was finished in 1975.

A study was completed as to available land surrounding Great Falls to develop an industrial park. After the 1964 flood, the Chamber endorsed a flood-control program that desperately needed to
be implemented. The Chamber also supported expanding the police and fire protection force.

In 1979, The Chamber urged state legislators representing the area to develop a united front, regardless of party affiliation, concerning local needs.

This brought about updating the School for the Deaf and Blind and the growth of Great Falls College MSU.

Moving to the twenty-first century, tourism was on the Chamber’s mind. Over the years, Visit Great Falls has been refined to support Great Falls’ ten museums and features of the Missouri River.

On February 8, 1962, the Chamber wrote in the Great Falls Tribune. “…day after day [the Chamber of Commerce] tackles the toughest problems that come along. Guided by its annual Work Program influenced strongly by the man-on-the-street’s opinions, the Chamber of Commerce constantly copes with the known problems and projects of our community.”

The Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce does not “sensationalize” its daily activities. Improving and growing the community is always at the heart of its non-sensational tasks. When those endeavors become news worthy, it’s important to know that they didn’t just happen.

Over the years, the Chamber has continued to have the same goals as in 1888: a skilled workforce, tourism, community development, governmental presence, transportation, economic development, and growth in population.
What has changed are the tasks and activities. For example, the Chamber has been a strong supporter and advocate for the McLaughlin Research Institute since 1954. With two post-secondary institutions as a foundation, along with Park University, the Chamber’s support of the new Touro University Montana College of Osteopathic Medicine now provides Great Falls with the look of a “higher education center.”

With the influx of new personnel through the educational, medical, and military fields, the Chamber has currently taken on as a focus the shortage of affordable workforce housing. Along with housing, the Chamber is focusing on needed childcare facilities. Insufficiency in both areas affects the city’s ability to recruit workers and businesses.

The businessman knows and often expresses concern about a skilled workforce. The Chamber of Commerce joins hands with local educational institutions to develop a skilled workforce through special training courses and programs. The Chamber also supports career fair events where workers and employers can find one another.

At the memorial for Paris Gibson, it was said that through both the low and high times, Gibson’s dominant characteristic was optimism, especially optimism for the future of the city he founded. The Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce knows that with the beauty of Great Falls, its space, its energy, and its all-around potential, it is easy to exude optimism that the community will continue to thrive.

The Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce is a collection of people who believe that a community worth living in is worth improving. To have the optimal perspective on issues, the Chamber is its best when members represent all areas of business and all perspectives.

Consider making the commitment to inquire about receiving a packet of information leading to becoming a member of the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.

Call 406-761-4434 today.

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