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When the doors opened Friday morning at the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark, the lower-level exhibit hall filled with the cacophony of excited women.

They came for the Women of Faith conference. But their presence marked a new chapter in the entertainment venue's history, reopening 10 months after a tornado ripped off the roof and damaged the interior.

Not all of the 5,000 women expected to attend the two-day conference were at the arena for the morning and afternoon sessions. More were expected Friday night and Saturday morning.

But there were enough to give the renovated building a test run. At 9 a.m., women streamed in, chatting and grabbing seats for the first session.

There were lines for concessions, including the Mountain Mudd coffee booth, but they didn't seem long. Because MetraPark turns all but one restroom into women's bathrooms for the conference, there was no lack of facilities.

Elizabeth McClenahan brought a contingent of 110 women, from Havre, Malta and the Hi-Line.

They were staying at a local hotel for a couple of nights and eating dinner at local restaurants. The conference is a time of spiritual refreshment, McClenahan said, and it's a lot of fun to get away for a couple of days with friends.

"One lady who came with us has four children under the age of 5," McClenahan said. "This is her time to get rested."

McClenahan brought women ranging in age from 13 to 85, some mother-daughter pairs and lots of groups of friends. Many of the women attend Fifth Avenue Christian Church in Havre.

After the first two speakers finished up, the women lined up to get box lunches, or to grab another cup of coffee or a soft drink. Or they trooped downstairs, where Women of Faith had tables of books and other items set up for shoppers to buy.

A quick survey of women during the break showed they were generally pleased with the remodel, but a few had suggestions.

Kathy Kujala of Park City came with Lori Helgeson of Spokane. Kujala, who has been to Women of Faith here in the past, said the arena seemed pretty much the same, while Helgeson said the seats seemed more comfortable.

"It's awesome to see a roof on it," Kujala said.

Both women thought the sound was a bit worse than in the past — "it echoes," Helgeson said.

Kujala also said she'd like to see the doors of the bathroom stalls open outward, rather than inward. But she said it's nice that there are more bathrooms.

Other women, like Kathy Workman, of Fairfield, said she didn't notice any difference in the sound system, but that it sounded great.

Trina Wilson, also of Fairfield, said the new restrooms were "nice and clean and modern."

Suzanne Brown and Michelle Petersen, sitting in the upper level of the arena, said they are fans of the new cup holders attached to the backs of the seats.

Brown said she liked the new concession area inside the arena itself. When Petersen went to buy a bottle of water, there wasn't a line, she said.

Both women, who have been to Women of Faith before, said they couldn't hear a difference in the sound system.

Marketing director Sandra Hawke thought one reason why the sound was the same is that Women of Faith has been coming to MetraPark for 15 years. They bring their own sound system. The producers know how to tweak their equipment to make it consistently good, she said.

Hawke said the day was going surprisingly well.

"We're delighted," she said. "There are always a few unexpected things, but the little problems are solvable."

With women coming early to the event, there's not a last-minute rush, which also helps, Hawke said. She said she received happy congratulations from lots of people.

"It's kind of a celebration for the staff," she said. "This is what we do for bread and butter, and we haven't been able to do it for 10 months."

Hawke said that interim was made easier by the support of the community.

"It's been unexpected, almost overwhelming, at every turn there's been encouragement," she said. "We can't thank the town enough for propping us up."

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.