Dry hole 

Empty-handed at the Lewis & Clark Commission

Next summer, a bronze bas-relief sculpture depicting Lewis and Clark’s journey through Montana will be unveiled in the state Senate chambers. The sculpture, commemorating the expedition’s bicentennial, will stand 8 feet tall and span 17 feet. The artist, based in California, is an award-winning sculptor who has worked in bronze bas-relief for 27 years. For his work, he will be paid $125,000—just a portion of the nearly half a million dollars that the state’s Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Commission has spent on contracts with out-of-state companies.

Montana’s 55th Legislat-ure created the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Commis-sion to coordinate events surrounding the state’s bicentennial celebration. The commission, funded by $250,000 in lodging taxes annually and an estimated $600,000 from the sale of Lewis & Clark license plates, hired Clint Blackwood as executive director in 1998. In 2002, the commission embarked upon a plan to raise $14 million for five partner organizations, including regional Lewis & Clark commissions. The plan, called the Legacy Campaign, included hiring a fundraising organization; the rationale, explains Blackwood, was to have one central agency approach potential donors rather than risk inundating donors with multiple requests from smaller regional fundraisers. Commissioners knew that donors were more apt to give money to smaller local projects, says Blackwood, but the commission sought the motherload. “We wanted to go big with it,” he says.

Now, the campaign has fallen miserably short of its $14 million goal. The campaign spent about $500,000 in contracts and administrative costs, says Blackwood. It has taken in about $382,575 in donations and expects another $235,000. Much of the expenditure went to Charles H. Bentz Associates, the organization charged with raising money. The contract with Bentz was terminated in April 2003. All told, roughly half a million dollars worth of commission contracts, including the fees paid to Bentz, had filtered out of state. While the commission has granted nearly $1 million to in-state projects, its decision to spend $500,000 beyond the Big Sky is rubbing some Montanans the wrong way.

“I always have an issue when we take state tax dollars and spend them out of state,” says Joni Stewart, chair of the Golden Triangle Regional Bicentennial Commission.

When her regional commission wrote the contract for a Lewis & Clark mural in Cut Bank, she says, local commissioners specified the artist be a resident of one of the commission’s three counties or member of the Blackfeet tribe. Regional representatives, she says, support the “buy local” concept, but they don’t have the state’s support in doing so.

“How can we do that adequately when we have governments that oppose that?” asks Stewart.

Some legislators, too, are unhappy to see state dollars spent elsewhere.

“I’m alarmed at the large sum of dollars that we have expended on out-of-state companies,” says Rep. Dave Wanzenried (D-Missoula).

It was Charles H. Bentz Associates, Inc., that drained the largest portion of funds the commission spent outside Montana. The company is based in Warren, Ohio. For eight months, it was paid $20,000 each month just to prepare for the Legacy Campaign. It was paid a total of $267,012.

Commission Executive Director Blackwood and Homer Staves, chair of the state commission, defend the decision to hire an out-of-state fundraising firm.

“When you try to raise $16 million dollars, you don’t want to hire someone who has never done it,” says Staves.

“[Charles H. Bentz Associates, Inc.,] had the best proposal, and they had experience in Montana,” says Blackwood.

Wanzenried, however, says he knows of Montana companies—“homegrown talent”—that could have done the job well.

If Bentz had come through on behalf of Montana, complaints that the company is based in Ohio might not have arisen. According to Blackwood, the company developed campaign literature, provided campaign supervision and solicited funding on a state and national level. But Bentz failed to raise the big bucks.

It was early on in the campaign that Blackwood realized the multi-million dollar goal might be out of reach.

“It was as we got into the first quarter of 2003,” he says.

The company’s contract was pulled in April. Staves believes that the commission pulled the Bentz contract neither too early nor too late. Both he and Blackwood believe the attacks of 9/11 were the main culprit in the campaign’s failure to reach its goal. Bentz did not return calls for comment.

Elsewhere in Montana, one “homegrown” fundraising attempt has found success. Dick Alberts, president of the Lewis and Clark Trail Bicentennial Commission of Lewis and Clark County, has helped pull together donations and partner contributions worth roughly $900,000. While he is complimentary of the state commission’s efforts, his fundraising philosophy is different.

“If it doesn’t get done on the local level,” says Alberts, “it doesn’t get done.”

Alberts and other regional commissioners are paid nothing for their fundraising work.

“We are volunteers,” says Alberts.

Of the five commission partners, the closest to Missoula is Travelers’ Rest State Park in Lolo. Of the $14 million hoped for, one million was earmarked for Travelers’ Rest. Loren Flynn, executive director of Travelers’ Rest Preservation and Heritage Association, a non-profit that manages the park, says he knew from the get-go that the fundraising climate was tenuous; he, for one, isn’t surprised that Travelers’ Rest won’t see its Legacy Campaign million.

But Linda Koncilya, Treasurer of the Lower Yellowstone River Regional Commission, is disappointed. She wanted to place giant mosquito sculptures along a 40-mile “mosquito trail.” In their journals, she says, Lewis and Clark complain incessantly about Montana’s mosquitoes.

“They’re mentioned every dang day,” she says.

The state commission liked the “whimsical” project, she says. But the project, like others across the state, won’t come to fruition with money from the Legacy Campaign.

“Everybody had big dreams that there was going to be money available,” says Koncilya, “and there just isn’t.”

kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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