THOMPSON FALLS — Here in the county seat of Sanders County — which typically delivers some of the toughest economic figures in Montana for unemployment — a young husband-and-wife business team is doubling down on the area’s natural beauty, and Montana’s tourism industry.
It wasn’t that long ago that Mark and Katrina Campbell had the Falls Motel, which they purchased in 2007, up for sale.
Now, they’re not only keeping the motel on the west side of Thompson Falls — they’re constructing a new restaurant, sports bar and casino on the east end of town.
Big Eddy’s Deck Bar and Casino is “a natural next step” for the couple, Katrina said, and will take advantage of a waterfront location that is both on Main Street and Montana Highway 200.
They’re the same stretch of pavement in Thompson Falls.
Across the Clark Fork River from what will be a riverfront deck — a grand view of Eddy Peak. The peak, and the onetime town of Eddy, inspired the name.
The Campbells, who moved here from Colorado six years ago, never intended to leave when they put their motel on the market.
“We were in the process of getting the liquor license for Big Eddy’s and we thought, ‘Oh no, it’s going to be hard to do both,’ ” Katrina said. “Eventually it made sense to keep the motel, too. We figured we could do it.”
While Mark Campbell has focused on running and improving the motel, which they’ve spent $70,000 updating and remodeling, his wife has helped there and devoted countless hours to promoting somewhat isolated Thompson Falls as a tourist destination.
“There’s a Chamber of Commerce here that has worked really hard on business-to-business partnerships,” Katrina said, “but there wasn’t really a countywide effort to promote tourism. A lot of times at the motel we’d get accidental tourists” — people who, for whatever reason, drove Highway 200 rather than Interstate 90.
I-90 is less than 20 miles south of Thompson Falls as the crow flies, but more than 60 miles from the nearest year-round access at St. Regis.
Since arriving in town, Katrina:
Has served on the board of Tour 200, which promotes the scenic corridor along the Flathead and Clark Fork rivers that Montana Highway 200 travels through Sanders County, from the tiny burgs of Dixon to Heron.
Has served on the Chamber board of directors.
Has run a countywide, eight-community yard sale that draws bargain and treasure hunters from around the region who prowl more than 100 sales up and down Highway 200 in the county on the last weekend of June.
Has run the Thompson Falls community Christmas celebration.
Started and ran the Thompson Falls Farmers Market.
Served on the Glacier Country Tourism Board.
The motel’s website also promotes local fishing, golfing, hiking, biking, shopping and area attractions from the National Bison Range to the Ross Creek Cedar Grove Scenic Area.
While they came here from Kremmling, Colo. — a mountain community of 1,500 people about 100 miles northwest of Denver, where Mark sold real estate and Katrina worked for the Chamber of Commerce — Thompson Falls felt like a homecoming of sorts for both.
Mark was born and raised in Butte. Katrina grew up outside Spokane, Wash., which is even closer.
“Mark really wanted to come back to Montana, and we fell in love with how beautiful this valley is,” Katrina said. “We have a passion for entrepreneurship, and we knew we could do it together.”
The riverfront property where they are building Big Eddy’s was for sale when they arrived in 2007, and Katrina said they saw the possibilities from the get-go.
But seeing the possibilities doesn’t get you a liquor license.
When Boondogglers Saloon, just a few blocks away from the property, closed and the owner put the liquor license, but not the building, up for sale, everything fell into place and the Campbells made the leap.
“We’ve had a number of motel customers ask us if there’s a place in town they can go for a drink and try some Montana-made stuff,” Katrina said, and, come late next spring, they’ll be directing them 11 blocks east to Big Eddy’s.
The Campbells are funding the $200,000 to $250,000 construction project through First Security Bank, which has a branch in Thompson Falls, with the support of the Sanders and Lake county community development corporations.
They also hired Steve Clark Construction of Thompson Falls to build Big Eddy’s, in part “because he was able to work with us from design through construction,” Katrina said.
“We also understood that he hires the best subcontractors in the area.”
The husband-wife team will devote themselves primarily to Big Eddy’s when it opens — in May, if all goes according to plan — and leave the Falls Motel much in the hands of two primary employees who have been with them for five years.
The plan for Big Eddy’s, meantime, is to capitalize on the tourist season Katrina has spent so much of the past six years promoting. It will be open from May through Halloween.
“Mark says unless we stay crazy busy,” Katrina said. “You never know. We do like our winter down time.’
The Campbells also say Big Eddy’s will employ eight to 10 people — welcome news in a rural county that often leads the state in unemployment.