Montana considering options to lure outdoor retailer expo

HELENA, Mont. — Montana officials said they are continuing to explore a bid for one of the country’s largest outdoor trade expos, even as they acknowledged that they may not have adequate facilities to host the massive event.

Nevertheless, Gov. Steve Bullock has directed his economic development team to ready a bid if the state is invited to do so for the Outdoor Retailer show, which could be held in Salt Lake City this summer for the last time.

Organizers have said they would look for a new host because of Utah’s political climate over public lands. Colorado, Oregon and Montana have been mentioned as options.

Meanwhile, the Utah Legislature is restoring $1 million in the state budget to help the show, in hopes it will persuade organizers to keep the event in Salt Lake City. But an event spokeswoman said they would only reconsider if state leaders change their stand on public lands.

The show last month announced it is leaving Utah after state leaders called for the new Bears Ears National Monument to be rescinded.

Bullock touted Montana as the right setting for the show. Montana has more than 57,000 square miles of public land, more than 300 fishing access points and a million acres of lakes, rivers and waterways.

“We have a brand, and that brand has to do with our public lands, clean air and clean water,” Bullock said.

“We’re trying to get more and more of the trade shows located here in Montana,” Bullock said. “Whether Montana could have the capacity to do so — I mean our convention center space isn’t certainly what Salt Lake is, but we’ll continue to have conversations with them and others on how we can get more of the trade shows.”

Montana is at a disadvantage because it does not have the same kind of amenities as Colorado and Oregon, including the necessary venues and hotel rooms to host exhibitors and as many as 29,000 attendees during the summer show.

Billings, the state’s largest city, has about 5,000 hotel rooms — hardly enough to accommodate the show’s visitors.

Nevertheless, state officials said they would continue discussions with show organizers to pitch Montana as a possible setting.

State officials acknowledge that the task is an ambitious one and they have work to do to land large gatherings like the retailers show.

The first task is getting an invite to bid from organizers.

“We would be happy to respond if we were to receive it,” said Ken Fichtler, the governor’s chief business development officer.

Fichtler said the state would have to think creatively in drafting its bid, particularly because of constraints in the availability of large venues. That could mean spreading out the expo across several communities or hosting a scaled-down version of the trade expo.

“We’re talking about outdoor retailers here, so they might enjoy a drive across Montana,” Fichtler said.

Luring the show would boost Montana’s manufacturing sector, particularly those focused on outdoor products. And it could enhance the state’s reputation not only as a recreational destination but also as a business incubator.

On Thursday, the governor convened representatives from 40 Montana-based outdoor companies at the Capitol to talk about strengthening business opportunities for a growing outdoor manufacturing industry and broach the idea of hosting the show.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, Montana’s outdoor economy generates 64,000 jobs, $1.5 billion in wages, $5.8 billion in consumer spending and $403 million in state and local tax revenue.

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