It’s been 12 years -- spanning seven legislative sessions -- that Montana lawmakers have tried to find a way to finance a new heritage center for the Montana Historical Society.
This Legislative session, we came closer than ever before. Two bills -- sponsored by myself and Rep. Jenny Eck of Helena -- passed in every committee and floor vote they encountered, indicating that most legislators want to get this done. But the session ended a few days early, and they didn’t make it across the finish line.
The needs of the Montana Historical Society are clear. And the solution is an economic opportunity that will benefit the entire state.
The 65-year-old building that houses many of our state’s historic treasures is inadequate for the job. Ultimately, priceless and irreplaceable objects -- Native American cultural items, relics of pioneer days and military service, art from Charles M. Russell, Jackson Pollack and others -- are at risk of damage or degradation in the current facility.
A new heritage center would make sure these items are well kept for generations to come. It would also help more and more Montanans, plus visitors and scholars from around the world, experience and enjoy all we have to offer.
The Legislature has authorized the historical society to issue bonds to partially fund the center, and MHS has raised millions more in private donations and pledges -- although some of those pledges could disappear if we don’t get the project going soon.
What the Legislature considered this year for the center was a half-percent increase in our lodging tax. That’s just 50 cents extra on a $100 hotel room. Out-of-state visitors now pay about 60 percent of this tax. In other words, this would be a bargain for Montana.
What’s more, some of that revenue would be slated for local historic preservation efforts around the state, so smaller museums and historical societies could continue to share their stories with their own communities and with visitors. That’s in addition to the ongoing work by MHS around the state, loaning out items and sharing knowledge and technical expertise with local historians and teachers in numerous cities and towns. The MHS may be located in Helena, but it’s a treasure for all of Montana, welcoming visitors, school groups and historic family items from every corner of the state.
Cultural and historic tourism is on the rise. The latest proposal would mean more visitors to historical societies around the state, and an estimated 78,000 additional visitors annually to Helena. It would provide a major anchor and attraction midway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. It would add to the corridor of natural and cultural attractions along the way, including the Charles M. Russell Museum and Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls; the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman; the Museum of the Plains Indians in Browning; hot springs; ghost towns; and attractions in Butte, Boulder, Fort Benton and along the Rocky Mountain Front.
The good news is that most of the 2017 Montana Legislature understood what a great opportunity the heritage center offers for the entire state. It was only the ticking clock of the legislative session and struggles over other bills that ultimately stopped the effort this year.
Please make sure that your legislator hears from you soon, before the next legislative session, about how important this museum is to every corner of Montana. Learning our history can help us chart our way to the future.
Good things, and good policies, take time. I hope that in 2019 -- or even sooner, if we have a special session -- we’ll finally move this project forward. Our children and grandchildren will thank us.
Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, represents Senate District 42 in the Montana Legislature.