Montana’s media darlings, Bozeman and Missoula, have long had places in the national spotlight, but lately a newcomer is getting some notice too.
In the last year or so, Helena has been showing up on websites and in online publications. Recently it earned a place in the latest issue of “Where to Retire” magazine, which included Helena among its pick of “8 Great Small Towns.”
Helena caught the attention of Business Insider, too. When the online publication rated the best restaurant in every state, the pick from Montana was none other than Lucca’s on Last Chance Gulch.
A mere 15 tables creates an intimate environment for guests to enjoy Chef Mike Hyyppa’s carefully crafted dishes, the Business Insider review stated before noting how the restaurant’s authentic Italian cuisine earned it a near-perfect rating on TripAdvisor.
Figuring out why the spotlight is on Helena -- and why now -- isn’t an exact science, although Norma Nickerson’s 20 years in tourism and recreation research at the University of Montana gives her some insights.
The newfound interest in Helena nationally, she suggested, could be because of attention it’s been receiving or because of the metrics that would give it some prominence.
National exposure, she said, does seem to go in batches.
Another possibility she saw is Helena is “a city on the move, that’s doing something.”
A group of people who work toward improving the quality of life in their community improve everyone’s quality of life, Nickerson said.
Voters in 2007 agreed to a $7.8 million park improvement bond that allowed the city to put into motion plans that benefited Kendrick Legion Field, the city’s swimming pool and the reconstruction of Centennial Park.
“That means the community cares about itself and is willing to pay,” Nickerson said.
“It makes things happen,” she said and noted that caring is contagious.
After several years of design and engineering, the first phase of the park’s improvements began in 2010. The park now has a developed area for dogs to run and play off-leash as well as a climbing boulder -- both were made possible through significant financial contributions by community groups -- and a trail with fitness stations. A bike park is also being constructed within Centennial Park.
A crosstown pedestrian trail is also in the works for Helena.
Objective and subjective views
Not all of the recent attention that has come Helena’s way is hard to explain.
When the online 24/7 Wall Street list of coldest cities came out Feb. 25, Helena was ranked 28th based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2012 comparative climate data report from 1981 to 2010.
Helena’s monthly average minimum of 11.9 degrees was relatively warm compared with Fairbanks, Alaska, with an average monthly minimum temperature of minus 16.9 degrees, which topped the list.
In January, the online site SmartAsset picked Helena as the fifth best Montana city in which to retire.
Doctors' offices per 1,000 people was a factor -- Helena had 3.2 -- as was retirement centers. Helena, with 15.8 percent of its population listed by the website as seniors, had 1.7 retirement centers for every 1,000 people.
Whitefish led that list. Bozeman trailed the field of 10.
Helena placed eighth in SmartAsset's healthiest Montana housing markets. Rankings reflected the number of days a home was on the market, the higher-than-average number of years residents lived in homes and the low number of homes that sold at a loss. Billings led the list and Kalispell came in last.
But other lists that included Helena are somewhat more subjective.
Readers of USA Today and 10 Best ranked Helena 10th in January among state capitals worth visiting.
“Obviously, every person has his or her own favorites, and someone else would put together a different list,” wrote David Scott who helped assemble the USA Today list of state capitals.
“In general, we enjoy towns that are easy to navigate. Carson City, (Nevada) Juneau, (Alaska) and Helena are obviously easy to navigate. We also enjoy the surrounding countryside, something especially appealing about these three capitals. By the way, Montana has always been one of our favorite places to visit.”
When it came to “the best all-around place to settle down,” Creditdonkey.com in September 2014 picked Helena.
“Aside from being a great place to work, Helena's natural beauty, paired with its low cost of living and affordable homes, also make it a fantastic place to live and play," Creditdonkey’s website noted.
Census data and FBI crime statistics were among yardsticks to rank cities, as were commute time to work, income, education and the number of restaurants per capita.
Livability.com put Helena in 52nd place in September when choosing the nation’s 100 most livable small to mid-sized cities.
With a median income of $49,445 and a median home price of $195,000, the website’s writers liked the mountainous landscape and the area’s outdoor recreational activities such as skiing, mountain bicycling, fishing and hunting.
Carroll College caught Livability.com’s attention, as did Helena College. The site advanced Helena from the previous year’s 95th place ranking.
Carroll College was ranked tops among regional colleges by US News and World Report and second for best value among these schools.
"Where to Retire" magazine, with its 200,000 circulation, has been suggesting retirement destinations since 1992, said its editor, Annette Fuller.
“Helena totally came into view,” Fuller said.
“You’re the capital. People know your name.”
Looking at online photographs of Helena further impressed the magazine’s staff.
The Downtown Walking Mall, she said, was important in helping Helena stand out.
“Walkability is a major factor for retirees,” Fuller explained.
Trails and pathways appeal to more than just retirees, and Nickerson said people enjoy being on them.
“They suddenly have this freedom that they didn’t have before,” Nickerson added. “Trails are huge.”
“For scenic beauty, this locale is hard to beat. Mount Helena City Park rises more than 1,000 feet above the valley, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, lakes, streams and all kinds of outdoor activities -- including trout fishing, hunting, golfing and skiing,” the city’s profile in “Where to Retire” magazine began.
“You have this playground right outside everybody’s door,” Fuller said.
“And that means ways to stay active,” she noted and said that many who are retired finally have the time to get physically fit.
The cost of living in Helena was another plus, as was the cost of housing.
Earning a spot in the magazine’s cover story wasn’t due to a single attraction, but, she explained, “an evaluation of your city showed it’s good for retirees.”
That Helena has a bit of bustle was also a plus for it with “Where to Retire,” Fuller said.
Effects and consequences
Among those who promote Montana and Helena, there are no definitive reasons to explain Helena’s new national exposure. It may be more because of ongoing efforts spanning several years.
Heidi O’Brien is the executive director of the Helena Tourism Alliance and with Pat Doyle, who was its community outreach director until taking another job, brought Helena recently into national and international prominence.
Helena was named Best of the Road for geocaching -- a treasure hunt activity that relies on GPS technology -- in Rand McNally’s 2014 mapbook. The Tourism Alliance and the Capital City Cachers made that recognition possible.
In 2013, Doyle and O’Brien helped Helena’s system of mountain bike trails draw notice from the International Mountain Bicycling Association, which gave the city a bronze-level ride designation.
The online site www.bikehelena.com details what the city offers riders.
Hurl Everstone wrote online in Bike: “Quick, what’s the first thing you think of when you hear, ‘Helena, Montana?’
“Well sure, it’s the state capital. But did you also know that it’s the de facto single track capital of Montana? We were stoked to spend a few days exploring the area after our weekend in Butte, and a chance meeting with Steve Coen of the Gravity Guild Garage in Helena cemented the deal.”
The online link www.bikemag.com/news/heavy-pedal-tour-2014-helena-montana will take the reader along for a fast downhill mountain bike ride into Helena.
Much of what the tourism alliance does works in concert with the state’s Office of Tourism, said O’Brien, who lauded the state’s work to promote Montana.
O’Brien targeted Seattle, Salt Lake City and Chicago to promote the USA Today list of state capitals worth visiting, and the $30 online investment produced nearly 10,000 clicks.
“In this digital world, we’re not sitting back," she said. "We’re very involved in the conversation, as they say."
Daniel Iverson, a public information officer with the Montana Office of Tourism, said he too has noticed greater attention toward Helena.
The state tries to create awareness of Montana, he said, and has a publicity program that brings media people in to familiarize them with the state.
“Maybe it’s just the work we’ve done to promote the state,” he said to help explain why Helena and why now.
The Office of Tourism spent about $5.2 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30, all on out-of-state efforts.
Seattle, Salt Lake City and Chicago -- cities with air service to Montana -- have been prominent in the state’s efforts, he added.
This year will see advertising for Montana in National Geographic Traveler, Outside and Ski magazines, among others, he said. Montana will be advertising online with sites such as Expedia and TripAdvisor, although the state’s marketing plan has yet to be finalized.
Spending by visitors is important to the office. He said he hopes to encourage those who come to spend a little more by, for example, staying an additional night.
In 2014, about 11 million out-of-state people came to visit Montana, Iverson said. When they left, they also left behind some $3.9 billion. The average spending on a trip to Montana is projected at $1,343.
Locally, every out-of-town person who comes to Helena for a meeting, convention or event is figured to spend $180 a day, which includes a night’s lodging.
The Helena Area Chamber of Commerce’s Vice President Mike Mergenthaler, who is also the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau director, has a hand in helping to promote his city.
“For the 10 years I’ve been here, we’ve been doing this advertising and getting the word out about Helena,” he said and noted that even with this effort, Helena continues to retain its small-town character.
“It’s catching on nationally,” he said, “that Helena’s a great place to live.”
Like the Helena Tourism Alliance, Mergenthaler directs some advertising spending in conjunction with the state tourism office’s efforts.
Every other year, writers are brought to see Helena’s amenities, he said, that includes everything from a boat ride through Gates of the Mountains to see the landscape Lewis and Clark wrote about in their journals to riding the tour train through the city.
In 2012, about $5,000 was spent to bring four writers here, he added.
“Our return on that investment was about $450,000,” he said of the value of the editorial space -- national exposure -- Helena received.
A similar media event last year was more social media oriented, he said.
The author of A Nerd At Large: the geektastic travel blog, was among those who toured the town.
And the blog’s author in return wrote “He stands in the middle of Last Chance Gulch, the main drag in Helena, Montana. The Bullwhacker wields his whip, the tip undulating skyward, caught mid-flick.”
“It’s hard to know just how much people are looking at something like this that’s online,” Mergenthaler said, although this too is more exposure for Helena.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 copies of Helena’s official guide will be mailed in response to requests for information, contained in magazines where Helena has advertising this year. Others are provided to hotels and used at visitors centers.
“I’d like to think some of our advertising is paying off,” Mergenthaler said.
Of the roughly $90,000 budget spent to promote Helena, between $40,000 and $50,000 pays for print ads. The remainder goes toward those media tours and printing and mailing information to those who request it, Mergenthaler said.
The advertising budget comes from the state’s 4 percent lodging tax that in 2014 saw Helena surpass the $1 million mark.
“I think that people are looking for that small-town feel, the scenic beauty that we have and the outdoor recreation that goes along with those things,” Mergenthaler said.
Geocaching “has become larger than life, almost,” he said of the result of the city earning Rand McNally’s Best of the Road accolade.
“It’s good to see that the efforts are paying off,” he said. “That people are recognizing Helena as a great destination.”
Based on all that has happened online, in publications and through advertising and editorial avenues, O’Brien is optimistic what the year will bring in the way of visitors and attention to Helena.
“This year’s the year,” she said. “This year’s going to be a great year.”