Turnouts for Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Disappoint Towns

The Lewis and Clark bicentennial commemoration kicked off with great fanfare and predictions that millions of tourists would turn out for the three-year celebration. Scores of isolated towns across the Great Plains and West planned huge and often expensive events — but tourism numbers have been disappointing.

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The late historian Stephen Ambrose believed that up to 30 million Americans would take part in the Lewis and Clark bicentennial. After a kickoff event in Virginia two years ago, communities from Missouri to Oregon scrambled to prepare for what was expected to be a huge rise in tourism. But in many places, the predicted throngs never materialized. Kirk Siegler visited one town in Montana where thin crowds have forced taxpayers to cover a half-million-dollar budget deficit.

KIRK SIEGLER reporting:

When leaders in Great Falls, Montana, heard up to a million new tourists might visit their town this year, they pulled out all the stops. A monthlong celebration was planned with exhibits, plays and lectures illustrating the expedition's time there, but only 40,000 people showed up.

Mayor RANDY GRAY (Great Falls, Montana): With 20/20 hindsight, knowing what we know now today as we stand on the east side of this interpretive center, it was probably overplanned.

SIEGLER: That's Mayor Randy Gray, but he argues the city's overestimation is defensible.

Mayor GRAY: By their nature, bicentennial events occur only every 200 years. So there's really no model for this.

SIEGLER: And Mayor Gray hasn't given up hope yet. He thinks the city's investment will pay off in the long run. Gray believes tourism will be part of the city's new economy, which has been struggling recently, even if the Lewis and Clark event wasn't the catalyst he hoped it would be.

Mayor GRAY: I think there truly was Lewis and Clark fatigue. At least locally here, I think a lot of people just were up to their eyeballs in Lewis and Clark, and it's nice, but, you know, that's enough of that.

SIEGLER: Unlike Lewis and Clark, however, people do want to talk about the budget deficit. Across town at the Morning Light coffee shop, Nick Morrison, a retired engineer, moans that he's not surprised the hundreds of thousands of tourists never came. Morrison thinks the bicentennial isn't that interesting to ordinary Americans.

Mr. NICK MORRISON (Retired Engineer): It bothers me that they're going to take my tax dollars from the city coffers to pay for their mistake.

SIEGLER: In nearby Missoula, Stephanie Ambrose-Tubbs acknowledges towns like Great Falls took her late father's predictions too literally.

Ms. STEPHANIE AMBROSE-TUBBS (Stephen Ambrose's Daughter): He was definitely riding a wave of what people were telling him in terms of his book "Undaunted Courage" and their reaction to it and how a lot of people said, `This book just makes me want to go out and do the trail.'

SIEGLER: She has also written about the famed trip as well as her own family's travels on the trail when she was a teen-ager.

Ms. AMBROSE-TUBBS: You know, as a historian, I would say you can't judge it just yet, you know. And I think with all the distractions that are going on in modern-day society these days, I know it's hard for me to get my kids even to say, oh, yea, you know, Lewis and Clark, let's learn some more about it.

SIEGLER: Lower-than-expected turnout along much of the trail has led officials in Oregon to scale back from some of their original plans. Barbara Allen(ph) heads that state's Lewis and Clark Commission. But, she says, low numbers aside, there have been positives from many towns along the route.

Ms. BARBARA ALLEN (Oregon's Lewis and Clark Commission): The fact of the matter is is that the community involvement, the statewide efforts, especially in, you know, the central states, has really galvanized a lot of people that normally would not have necessarily been interested in working together or volunteering for a program or project.

SIEGLER: The bicentennial reached Oregon this month. The state is expecting to draw around 40,000 people for their main event, well under Great Falls' high expectations of one million.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler in Missoula, Montana.

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