Establishing Butte as “Montana’s Festival City”

Strategy: Collaborate in New Ways, Enhance Your Product

Type of attraction: Arts Organization, Main Street/Community

Summary: Butte has long been known as a center for copper mining, but if Main Street Uptown Butte has its way it may become known as “Montana’s Festival City.”

Butte has long been known as a center for copper mining, but if Main Street Uptown Butte has its way it may become known as “Montana’s Festival City.” As part of their promotion committee activities, the Main Street program successfully competed for the opportunity to host the National Folk Festival for three years.  This festival, sponsored by the National Council of Traditional Arts in Washington, D.C., chooses a new venue for the event every three years—and this is the first time it has been held west of the Mississippi since the event was held in Denver in 1964. Hosting the festival requires attracting $1.2 million in sponsorships, grants and tax-deductible contributions each year as well as recruiting 900 to 1,000 volunteers, a big challenge for a small city of less than 34,000. 

The Folk Festival’s 900 volunteer workers are from throughout Southwest Montana, but many others come from across the United States to help with a volunteer shift as part of their festival experience. Sponsors have ranged from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and the Montana Office of Tourism to national corporate sponsors such as Anheuser Busch and Patagonia and national grant sources like the National Endowment for the Arts Folk and Traditional Arts program.  The festival’s founding partners include the Butte/Silver Bow city-county government and Imagine Butte, a community development organization. Another yearly financial sponsor is SEACAST, a Marysville, Washington-based precision casting company with a Butte connection. Additional funds are provided by foundations from Montana and other western states, 32 corporate and local business sponsors, and four Montana media partners who provide promotion and, in one case, live coverage of the festival. 

The downturn in the national economy has made potential sponsors reluctant and fundraising a challenge, but the strenuous efforts of the festival organizers has been rewarded with widespread support. This three-day free-of-admission event attracted an estimated 75,000 visitors in its first year, nearly 120,000 in 2009 and 165,000 visitors in the final year of the national event in 2010 for the celebration of music, dance and the arts.

The National Folk Festival has featured up to 22 acts showcasing nearly 250 performers in six venues including the Original Ampitheatre, a transformed mineyard from Butte’s underground mining days that features a headframe, once used to lower and raise miners and ore from the diggings below ground, as the focal point for the stage. A study of the event showed that it had a $4 million economic impact in the first year and a $20 million economic impact for Butte in the second year. 

“Hosting the National Folk Festival has helped to position Butte and Montana as a festival destination,” says George Everett, executive director of Mainstreet Uptown Butte (www.mainstreetbutte.org), the lead non-profit involved in bringing the festival to Montana.  “We plan to host a successor festival, the Montana Folk Festival, when the National moves on in 2011 to Nashville, Tennessee, the next host city, and everything will remain the same except the name,” adds Everett.

In addition, Uptown Butte is seeking sponsorships to purchase festival equipment such as tents, fencing and port-a-johns that can be used by the community for multiple festivals throughout the year. “Uptown Butte sponsors about 10 special events and retail promotions throughout the year,” observes Everett.  “We’ve been able to use this event to help us find funding for festival equipment as well as funding for public improvements such as sidewalks that are good for the community and visitors.  Our focus on festivals is a key part of our efforts to revitalize this community.” Thanks to Uptown Butte’s efforts with the National Folk Festival, Butte has seen an increase in tourism in the past few years despite the fact that the economic downturn has led to a decrease in tourism statewide.