Ovando Nominated for Community of the Year

OVANDO – Owner of Ovando's Blackfoot Angler Kathy Schoendoerfer said she needed to be convinced the phone call wasn't a scam when Kevanne Campbell with the Montana Office of Tourism and Business and Development called to tell her Ovando was in the running for Community of the Year. Of the 130 communities in Montana, Ovando was one of three nominated and chosen to be recognized at the Montana Governor's Conference on Tourism and Recreation.

Schoendoerfer said when she and her husband opened their fly fishing shop 20 years ago, no one knew where Ovando was.

"Now we could be community of the year and are being talked about in Belgium and Canada and people all over the world know where we are is freaking huge for the economy of our town," she said. "I'm thrilled to death."

For the last five years, Ovando has become known by the cycling community around the world as a place to stop to sleep, refuel and chat with the locals.

The Blackfoot Commercial Company and Inn, when it was owned by Peggy and Howie Fly, put up the first Tour Divide rider. The Tour Divide is a 2,735-mile long mountain bike race that stretches from Banff, Canada to the Mexican border. Ovando sits at mile 550 and has become a staple stop for riders.

"We always like the Divide riders and then we got to know a lot of the groups that put on the rides, including the cross country ones," said Peggy. "Kathy picked it up because it was overwhelming for us. Everybody in Ovando has pitched in at one time or another. The cyclists bring a lot of economy into the town and we appreciate them. It's just a good thing."

Adventure Cycling's Director of Travel Initiatives Ginny Sullivan has worked with Ovando and uses Ovando as a model community for cycling tourism and bike camps across the Rocky Mountain front.

She nominated Ovando after being inspired by an article written by Micah Drew with the Seeley Swan Pathfinder in The Montana Gap project entitled "Rural Towns Capitalize on Cycling Tourism" printed first in High Country News and then in the Missoulian.

"It triggered something in my mind because the next thing I saw was the application for tourism communities," said Sullivan. "If anyone should be nominated right now it should be Ovando. Ovando has been doing so much to attract this niche geotourism market."

Sullivan said Schoendoerfer, also known unofficially as Ovando's "Organizer of Frivolous Affairs," is the spearhead with her enthusiasm and puts the extra effort into things. And the entire community rolls out the welcome mat to provide hospitality to the bike community.

"It's the buzz of bike travel. People that are doing the Great Divide, they all talk about when they are going to get to Ovando and that special treatment that they are going to get," said Sullivan. "Whether it is staying in the tee-pee or the jail or whether or not when they get there Kathy has the tools that they need so that they can get their bike prepared, she takes their photo for them, will call family members and let them know they are doing okay, the whole town just does these incredible things. It's the little extra that keeps people talking and shows that the hospitality and the accommodation of a little town in Montana of only 65 people can really win if they do it right."

Ovando offers lodging at the Blackfoot Commercial Inn as well as on cots in their western-themed bike camp including a Sheepherders Wagon, Teepee and Jailhouse. They also have a notice board where riders can communicate, they take their photo and post it online and will call family if needed, they cater to the cyclists food and mechanical needs and offer solar showers.

"It's basically meeting the needs of a niche tourism market," said Sullivan. "I think Ovando really does it well and does it right with such a clear attitude of enthusiasm and delight. It's just incredible."

Leigh Ann Valiton, current owner of Blackfoot Commercial, said they stay open longer hours and try to stock a little bit of everything.

"We go out of our way to accommodate whatever the need might be," said Valiton who listens to her customers' suggestions. "I think it is phenomenal and for such a small community to be nominated is a testament to how well this community works together. We are just absolutely elated and hopefully it will bring even more tourist in than we have been getting."

"I see Ovando as the little town that refuses to go by the wayside and this recognition helps us to reach more people and bring them in to experience small town life and community," said Cindy Francis, owner of Trixi's Saloon and Family Dining. "It is a good thing for all of us financially when this happens as well as keeps us connected with the world."

The accommodating atmosphere is extended at Trixi's as well.

"Trixi's has the motto, 'No one who walks in our door is a stranger, you are either friend or family' and that's how we treat people," said Francis. "This community has deep roots and a big heart.  We cheer for each other and help each other out-we are family."

Everyone was grateful for the nomination from Adventure Cycling.

"All of our work has been recognized as something that is good," said Schoendoerfer. "It's just recognition for all the hard work. It's validation that it is all worth it."

"It just means a whole lot to the community. I was shocked because we are kind of small," said Peggy and laughed. "We feel incredibly honored. It means nothing but good for the community and all the communities that are involved in the cycling."

"I love to see something that I work on and love benefit these little towns," said Sullivan. "If it is the difference in keeping their café or little market open, then that is a big deal."

Butte and Helena were the other two nominations for Montana's Community of the Year. The winner will be announced at the Governor's Conference on Tourism and Recreation April 15-17.


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