MISSOULA – When a community completes noticeable infrastructure changes, do visitors have a better image of that community and spend more money? That was the question the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research asked about Gardiner in its latest study.
The study assessed image perceptions, spending and activities before and after the Gardiner Gateway Project. The project aimed to restore and enhance the Roosevelt Arch entrance to Yellowstone National Park, create pedestrian-friendly zones, and renovate Park Street with new parking, sidewalks, a visitor center with public restrooms and improved signage. The infrastructure also was designed to ease traffic flow into the park and provide a county park capable of hosting large events.
“Since the infrastructure change was aimed at economic development, this study allowed us to assess visitors’ spending and image before the changes and then afterward,” ITRR Director Norma Nickerson said. “It’s rare to have an opportunity to survey visitors over two time periods like this. And the results certainly verify that infrastructure change correlates with higher spending and a higher image of the community by visitors.”
Adjusting for inflation, the study results show that spending increased by $69.48 per day, or $112.77 per trip, in Gardiner. In 2018, visitors were more likely to spend extra time in Gardiner visiting attractions and rafting than before the infrastructure changes.
Visitors’ image of Gardiner significantly improved on 15 out of 22 image variables in 2018 after the changes were completed. Many changes made as part of the project showed positive results. Visitors said that the signage, sidewalks, road quality and nice presentation of the town, as well as the storefronts, had significantly improved since 2013.
Not all the changes, however, were improvements. Visitors did not assess parking and summer traffic flow as better in 2018, even though the project aimed to improve both of those issues.
“That may be partly explained by the 22 percent increase in visitation to Yellowstone’s north entrance over that five-year time frame,” Nickerson said.
“The findings assured us, and possibly other communities contemplating infrastructure changes, that it can pay off in terms of economic development,” said Jeff Guengerich, Gardiner Chamber of Commerce president. “Overall, we are pleased with these results.”
Tourism is a $4.7 billion industry for Montana. Rural communities in Montana, such as Gardiner, continue to strive for economic diversity and stability. The study shows infrastructure improvements to a small community to be a viable strategy, since both spending and image improved after development. Other communities may use the study results to show decision-makers that investing in their community can provide economic strength for their future.