By Brad Reynolds
Wayne and Sandy Thares aren’t the only husband and wife philanthropists in downtown Great Falls, but their business ventures make them among the most recognizable. Wayne is a partner in the historic Hotel Arvon, Celtic Cowboy, and Dark Horse Hall & Wine Snug (in addition to other enterprises he owns elsewhere in the city). Sandy is owner of the O’Haire Motor Inn, Clark & Lewie’s Restaurant, and the renowned
Sip ‘n Dip Lounge—Montana’s only mermaid bar. Though it might seem like this would put the couple in direct competition with one another (each runs a full-service hotel just five blocks apart), Wayne and Sandy view their businesses as entirely different, allowing them to fill various niches to better serve the community.
“Any business downtown is good for downtown as a whole,” says Sandy. “People who come downtown go to two or three establishments, not just one. We cross-promote one another. There has to be an air of cooperativeness.”
Sandy is happy to recommend boutiques, galleries, and even other bars and restaurants to her customers. Other business owners kindly return the favor, even if the Sip ‘n Dip doesn’t require much promotion these days. The tiki lounge’s reputation precedes itself, thanks (in part) to several national news stories. People from all over the world come to experience it. A mother and daughter who were recent visitors to the U.S. stopped in at 9am hoping to catch the mermaids. In June 2019, a man drove 2,000 miles just to hear Piano Pat play.
“It’s crazy,” laughs Sandy. “We’re something people just have to see.”
This hasn’t always been the case, however. When Sandy and her stepfather, Mel Mantzey, purchased the O’Haire in 1994, it required some serious development. Rooms were remodeled, the restaurant was changed, and the bar’s interior received some much-needed updates (while still maintaining the theme).
“It was kind of a sad little bar in the Nineties. We had maybe twenty customers a day,” Sandy explains. “Probably the thing that kept us going was our great employees.”
The addition of mermaids in 2000, followed by the Sip ‘n Dip’s national coverage in GQ in 2003 were turning points for the business. Since then, the bar has received more press than Sandy can keep up with, and she sees the Sip ‘n Dip’s sudden fame as an opportunity to uplift the rest of downtown Great Falls.
“Downtown has become a vibrant community,” Wayne comments. “There are more liquor licenses now than in the 1970s. There’s a whole entertainment district. There’s retail. There’s a lot of passion here.”
In 2012, passion is what moved Wayne and his partners to step in and save the Arvon Block. Developed by Robert Vaughn (R. Vaughn) in 1890, the Arvon Block includes the oldest commercial building in Great Falls, which was destined for the wrecking ball due to disrepair. After four years of restoration and development, the historic block was reopened as an Irish pub and boutique hotel, and has since grown to include a wine snug.
Wayne notes that this hasn’t been without sacrifice. There are no get rich schemes in downtown Great Falls. You do it because you care. You do it because it’s home.
In Wayne and Sandy’s case, they literally live it.
“Our house is on the lower north side, seven blocks from work, so it’s not like we drive away from it at the end of the day. We’re immersed in downtown,” says Sandy.
With home life and work so closely entwined here, the Thares have put a great deal of effort into helping improve downtown’s appearance, safety, and entertainment options.
Of course, you don’t have to be a downtown business owner or resident to make a difference. Sandy notes there are lots of opportunities for people to get involved.
“No matter what your interests are, you can help make the community better,” she says.
Anyone can be a Mr. or Mrs. Downtown.