TWIN BRIDGES — When the dust settles next month, Twin Bridges may have lassoed one of the state's biggest economic development prizes of 2012.
The Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center, a state-supported museum with significant financial backing, has the Ruby Valley town squarely on its short list.
And the small town isn't a long shot. Twin Bridges has something red and round that sets it apart from its five remaining competitors.
Tony and Amie James, owners of the 80,000-acre Hamilton Ranch, are giving for free 30 acres of land north of Twin Bridges that includes the iconic Doncaster Round Red Barn built in the early 1880s. The barn was the birthplace and training site of 1889 Kentucky Derby-winning racehorse named Spokane, the only Montana-born winner of America's most famous horse race.
"It's an incredible, striking building," said Sam Korsmoe, executive director of the Madison County Economic Development Council, the group spearheading Twin Bridges' bid. "There is nothing else like it in Montana."
The barn would probably not be used as the main exhibit hall of the new museum, said Korsmoe, but would be part of the campus and could hold lectures, events and exhibits that are not weather-sensitive. The barn is in excellent structural shape but does need serious upgrades.
Still, it's a remarkable slice of Montana history to be just given away.
"We are new to this community and want to be good neighbors and give something valuable back to Twin Bridges and Montana," said the barn and ranch owner Tony James, formerly of New York.
Tom Hyndman, mayor of Twin Bridges, said the city council has also come out in favor of bringing the hall of fame to town and said they will do what they can to support it.
"I guess we were a little skeptical at first. Thought they might be trying to get as much as they can for nothing," he said. "But now I think it's a real thing and a nice thing. The last two months we've learned about it. It's supposed to be as big as the (Buffalo Bill museum in) Cody."
Slice of Western life
According to Aaron Lyles, director of finance for the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, the organization would like to model itself after that Cody, Wyo., museum, which features exhibits on Western history, pioneers, art and general day-to-day Western life.
"It's going to be attraction for folks with a diverse set of interests," Lyles said. "We're going to find a way that communicates how to live, how to work, how to play (through the history of Montana.) It's not just about cowboys."
The Hall of Fame is not technically a state agency, but it received a special legislative designation along with $500,000 in state funding. Lyles said they expect to increase that into millions of dollars raised from private individuals, charities and corporations once a site has been chosen and more concrete plans can move forward. Korsmoe said he plans to raise $1 million locally to support the project if Twin Bridges is that choice. The other communities still in the running are Big Timber, Big Sky, Livingston and Wolf Point.
Lyles said the group expects to select its new home soon, and promptly begin the process of erecting Montana's newest tourist destination.
"There is a lot of momentum behind the project right now," he said. "We're under a lot of pressure to see this become tangible for folks as soon as possible."
Lyles said it is not yet known how many jobs would be created by the museum, but noted that studies they conducted have estimated an annual operating budget of $5 million and a nearly $50 million economic boost over a 50-year period.
Korsmoe agreed that the long-term economic could be huge, bringing initial construction jobs, value to the local tax base and the opportunity for many offshoot businesses, from restaurants to horseback rides.
"Wherever this lands, it's going to be one of the biggest, most well-known museums in the state," Korsmoe said.
Carol Delisi, president of the Ruby Valley Chamber of Commerce, said she thinks Twin Bridges would be a great place for the museum and the museum would be great for Twin Bridges.
"All of the sites have history behind them, but we have that too," said Delisi. "We're always looking for ways to keep the younger people here. They're going elsewhere for jobs, but this might keep some here. It certainly is very exciting, just the possibility of it."
Although the land is outside city limits, Mayor Hyndman said "it wouldn't take too much" to run city water and sewer lines to the site.
He, too, believes the museum could cause a boon in the Twin Bridges economy, bringing things like motels, restaurants and jobs.
It fits with the responsible growth Hyndman would like to see for the town, which had 600 residents when he grew up and is now home to about 400 people.
"We've got to have growth or we're going to die," said Hyndman.