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By Andi Bourne

Ovando Named Community of the Year


April 26, 2018

Montana Department of Commerce

Long-time residents and business owners Howie and Peggy Fly, Brand Bar Museum board member Terry Sheppard, school teacher and owner of the Blackfoot Commercial Company and Inn Leigh Ann Valiton, owner of the Blackfoot Angler and Organizer of Frivolous Affairs Kathy Schoendoerfer and owner of Trixi's Antler Saloon Cindy Francis pose with Montana Lieutenant Governor Michael Cooney after accepting their Community of the Year award from the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development April 16 in Big Sky, Mont.

BIG SKY, MONT. - "This is a story about a community coming together to save their town through tourism," wrote Montana Department of Commerce Industry Services & Outreach Bureau Chief Jan Stoddard regarding Ovando being recognized as Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development's 2018 Community of the Year. "It was clear that Ovando's unique community collaboration, no matter the town's size, can have a lasting impact on supporting the travelers who visit Montana and spend $3.4 billion in our towns each year."

Ovando, a town that boasts a population of 50 residents, is the smallest community to ever receive the award. They aced out Helena and Butte for the title.

Less than 20 years ago hardly anybody in Montana had ever heard of Ovando. Now it has become a staple stop for fishermen on the Blackfoot River and cyclists on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail and during the Tour Divide Race. Embracing the tourist trade and treating tourist as friends and family instead of strangers created the economic boom needed to keep Ovando from dying.

"Without a formal organization behind them, community members started to create a small bike camp," wrote Stoddard. "The entire town welcomed bikers to their community and started to get national media attention for it."

The Community of the Year award acknowledges communities exemplifying the second Montana Brand pillar of "vibrant and charming small towns that serve as gateways to our natural wonders." Adventure Cycling's Director of Travel Initiatives Ginny Sullivan nominated Ovando for their work attracting the cycling niche geotourism market.

"We were all totally surprised when we heard that we had been nominated. With Butte and Helena as competition, we thought 'we can beat them' but we didn't want to get our hopes up," said Brand Bar Museum board member Terry Sheppard.

Six members of the community agreed to make the trip to Big Sky for the event. They were asked jokingly by others at the ceremony if they brought the whole town. Cindy Francis, owner of Trixi's Antler Saloon, said she replied, "No, but it was a pretty good representation."

"Tourism is one of Montana's leading industries, and although the landscape speaks for itself, much of the industry's success is because of the men and women across the state who are working hard to develop tourism experiences, provide visitor services and promote this special place," said Lt. Governor Mike Cooney at the Governor's Conference on Tourism and Recreation ceremony April 16. "This is an opportunity to celebrate their work and their many successes."

Francis said the event was amazing. It was very well done and special to be a part of it. "It was icing on the cake when they said 'OVANDO!' Well they didn't say Ovando like that, we did," said said and laughed.

Sheppard said she knew Ovando won when the presenters said "small community" because to her Butte and Helena are not small. She loved how the more than 300 people in attendance shared their excitement by yelling and cheering when Ovando was announced as the winner.

"It's just amazing a small town could get awarded something like that," said Sheppard. "I hope other small communities see what we did and can get on their for an award for another year. When it is a whole community effort it's not easy but I guess we pulled it off."

"It's an affirmation that we are doing something right," added Francis. "I have to give kudos to Kathy Schoendoerfer. She is a driving force behind a lot of it."

"Cyclists now make plans on making it to Ovando and now we are not the town that nobody in Montana heard of but we are the town talked about globally from Banff to Belgium," said Kathy Schoendoerfer, owner of the Blackfoot Angler and unofficially named the organizer of frivolous affairs. "This award is validation that all our hard work was worthwhile and did not go unnoticed. We truly appreciate it."

While Francis is excited about the recognition for Ovando's hospitality to cyclists, she wants to expand it.

Montana Department of Commerce

Ovando's Kathy Schoendoerfer accepting the Community of the Year award with the rest of the Ovando community members behind her.

"I don't want it to be just about cycling, I want it to be for every single person that comes down Highway 200. There is so much recreation and travel on this highway," she said. "If you come through Ovando you are a part of us, even if we never see you again."

While no formal plans are in place, Francis feels the more they can put themselves out there for anyone coming through the area, the better.

"We want to make sure nobody forgets this little town," said Francis. "It is a great place, there are friendly people that really want you to come and visit with us."

The Community of the Year award is on display at the local businesses until the community decides one place to display it. For a video of the Community of the Year presentation visit

For more information about the 2018 Montana Tourism Awards visit


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