News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Erin Nicholes, The Montana Standard, Butte
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 8, 2004 - THREE FORKS, Mont. -- This is the kind of town where, on winter Friday nights, most people can be found at the high school gym cheering on the hometown team.
And after the game, regardless of who wins, the crowd usually moves to a local bar. Their newest gathering spot is the historic Sacajawea Hotel on the northern edge of town.
"It's kind of the watering hole after the basketball games," Mayor Gene Townsend said of the century-old inn, bar and grille. "I see a lot of the same people I see at the basketball games there." The Sacajawea, which has known its share of financial hardships, is alive again.
The newest owners, a group of investors with Montana roots, have blown the dust off the building and revived its spirit. They're restoring the bar and restaurant to their historic status as community favorites.
And with a little luck, they'll be able to draw people here from other places.
"We have transformed the building ... into a living, breathing thing," said general manager Jeremy Fatouros.
People here cherish the Sacajawea not just as a business, but as a member of the community.
The hotel, which was built in 1910 largely for Milwaukee Railroad passengers on the way to Yellowstone National Park, is one of Three Forks' grandest offerings to visitors.
Lifelong residents here have memories of playing in the hotel as children.
"I just remember that it seemed so big," said Mary Miller, now 57 and clerk at the Sacajawea's front desk, recalling her childhood days at the hotel.
When Mayor Townsend was in high school, students snake-danced through town during homecoming week.
"One of the places we would go was the Sacajawea, and (visitors) just loved it," he said.
The Sacajawea also gives Three Forks, a small, close-knit community on Montana Highway 10, a face that people from across the country recognize.
"Most people look at it as a landmark," Townsend said. "If you're from Three Forks, and you go someplace else, usually the first question people ask is, 'Is the Sacajawea Hotel still there?'" That's why the town all but rioted when former owners announced in 2001 that they planned to turn the hotel into an assisted-living center for senior citizens.
The town protested so loudly it got the attention of a group of 32 investors called Four Mountains, LLC.
"We kind of gathered forces with the townspeople," said Pete Lazetich, a Four Mountains investor and a Billings native with a personal connection to the hotel.
"We spent the summers on my grandfather's ranch west of Anaconda," he said. "When we traveled from Billings to Anaconda, we'd always stop at the Sacajawea." Four Mountains bought the Sacajawea -- and after fixing a few pipes, installing new wiring and renovating the kitchen -- reopened it as an inn, bar and grille in summer 2002.
"Once people go there, and walk onto that porch and through that lobby, they'll know why we bought it," he said.
The hotel is named for Sacajawea, the American Indian woman who guided the Lewis and Clark expedition on their journey West.
The bicentennial of that expedition could draw millions of people to Montana, and many could visit Three Forks, but people also come here on the way to fish blue-ribbon streams, hunt wildlife and visit Yellowstone.
The town is more a stopping place than a destination, but local people and the Sacajawea's owners are hoping the hotel will change that.
The people of Three Forks are grateful to Four Mountains for returning the Sacajawea to them as a gathering place.
"The people that opened it made a real effort to get the locals coming back to the hotel, and they do," Townsend said.
Local organizations have started using the hotel more. The Sacajawea hosted a firemen's ball, a quilting bee, a Montana Highway Patrol party, local Pinnacle Club meetings, events during the Christmas Stroll and business meetings.
The restaurant is also becoming more crowded at the dinner hour, when people fill the small dining room for thick cuts of beef, tender chicken and salmon dishes. The restaurant and bar are busy most nights of the week, Fatouros said.
The small tables are arranged in an intimate, but not cramped, setting. Walls the color of spilled merlot are lined with photographs of railroad workers, Chief Joseph and other characters from local history.
And even though the dining room is gently elegant, the Sacajawea is a place where people from every walk of life should feel welcome, anytime, Fatouros said.
"You can come in wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, and you're going to be sitting next to someone wearing a suit," Fatouros said. "We all put our pants on the same." With business in the bar and restaurant steady, now the Sacajawea needs overnight guests -- the real profit comes from reservations for the hotel's 32 rooms.
"We need some folks," Lazetich said.
The hotel is booked in summer, but in winter, only a handful of people stay here.
The first step is getting noticed. Fatouros is considering ways to market the Sacajawea nationally, and wants people to know the hotel is available for weddings and business retreats. It has two large meeting rooms, a spacious, airy lobby and a 5-acre yard.
Rooms cost between $69 and $119 a night, depending on the year, and that cost includes a continental breakfast. All rooms have modern amenities, such as televisions and private bathrooms.
And the improvements are far from over. Fatouros wants to improve the restaurant with a new dinner menu offering Montana cuisine with an ethnic flair, every night.
And, he's planning to have bands and barbecues in the Sacajawea's yard every weekend, all summer long, he said.
While he works aggressively to make the Sacajawea a success, it remains his priority to maintain the hotel as something the local community can be a part of, he said.
"The hotel is definitely not going to grow away from Three Forks," he said. "It's just going to help in opening up Three Forks."
ON THE WEB: http://www.sacajaweahotel.com/
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(c) 2004, The Montana Standard, Butte. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.