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Billings slipped slightly ahead in the 1970 census and today is almost twice as large. Missoula knocked Great Falls down another peg in 2000, taking over the No. 2 spot.

It wasn’t that people poured out of Great Falls in droves. The city located more than 150 miles from the busy Interstate 90 corridor just quit growing.

The latest population estimate for Great Falls is 59,351. That’s a change of just 740 people 740 fewer people in the last 45 or so years. That’s a long time not to grow or shrink.

It’s still where what is arguably the shortest river on Earth empties into the longest river in North America, and the place that produced one of Montana’s most revered athletes, one of America’s greatest Western artists, and one of the world’s finest statesmen. Senate Majority Leader and Ambassador Mike Mansfield aside Great Falls still started to fall into a decades long rut half a century ago.

“It was a stick in the mud place,” says Trever Ziegler, head brewer at The Front Brewing Co. “Nothing ever changed. I never wanted to live here when I came 17 years ago. I only moved because my wife was going to nursing school and I thought we’d be gone after two years. It was going to be an in and out deal.”

Today, Ziegler says he can’t imagine leaving Great Falls.

“You can really feel it changing,” he says. “It’s exciting. Especially in the last five years, there’s been a lot of new blood, and things are happening.”

That’s evident on the west bank of the Missouri. Great Falls natives Brad Talcott and his wife, Linda Caricaburu, are developing a long neglected section along the river.

Since 2009, the 6 1/2 acre site has welcomed a four story, 113 suite hotel (Staybridge Suites), a spectacular new $16.4 million federal courthouse (named after the Missouri River), a Japanese seafood and steakhouse (Kobe’s), and a brew pub Ziegler is part of called The Front and the attached Faster Basset coffee and sandwich shop.

Their motto, says owner Brandon Cartwright: “Come for the coffee. Stay for the beer.”

The hotel, restaurants, brew pub and courthouse are the first phase of development. Next door, old grain silos will eventually be moved to make room for phase two.

“I really feel Great Falls is coming out of the creative business rut it was in,” Cartwright says. “That’s nothing against the businesses that paved the way, but developments like West Bank One and Two are giving people a lot more choices.”

Another sign of a changing Great Falls is near Cartwright’s business and every other business on either side of the Missouri. The River’s Edge Trail winds its way along both sides of the riverbank through town, and for several miles east of town on the south side, at the start of the Missouri Breaks.

It’s 58 miles of trails 21 of them paved connecting a dozen parks and constructed, a piece at a time, over the last 25 years.

The River’s Edge passes by Great Falls’ Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, considered by many Lewis and Clark buffs to be one of the finest of its kind,
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and located in the area where the explorers portaged around the five waterfalls that give the city its name.

It travels in front of Calumet Montana Refining, where an ongoing $400 million expansion will boost refining capacity from 10,000 barrels of crude oil a day to approximately 25,000 barrels a day.

The changes aren’t limited to the riverbank.

A mile or two north of the river, the Canadian firm ADF International last year opened a 100,000 square foot, $26 million steel fabrication plant, and will soon add a $6 million paint shop. ADF manufactures steel beams for everything from football stadiums to seismic retrofits in California.

A couple miles south of the river, the former vo tech now known as Great Falls College MSU has tripled the size of its welding program to help provide ADF with a trained workforce. and end at midnight.

“It’s brought life back to Great Falls,” says Great Falls College CEO and dean Susan Wolff, part of a team that helped convince ADF which also has offices in Montreal and Miami and was looking for a place to establish a presence on the west side of North America to choose Cascade County.

For all that’s happening in Great Falls, there is no denying that much of what’s truly cool about the city that hosts the Montana State Fair each summer is what hasn’t changed.

The opulent Rainbow Hotel, where guests over the years included Bob Hope, Sonny and Cher, President Ronald Reagan and the King of Prussia, may be an assisted living center now, but other places remain much as they have been for decades.

Downtown at the Sip ‘n’ Dip Lounge in the O’Haire Motor Inn, mermaids swim past windows that let bar patrons on the second floor see into the hotel’s third story swimming pool. “Piano Pat” Spoonheim, the same woman who started playing piano and singing at the Sip ‘n’ Dip in 1962, still entertains today.

Now a great grandmother, she was 28 when she was called to fill in one night on a “temporary” gig that’s now lasted 53 years.

Great Falls is a place where family owned supper clubs born in the 1930s and ’40s still serve up prime rib and steaks places like Eddie’s, Borrie’s and 3D International. The latter has its name on a massive sign that explains the whole idea behind supper clubs (the three Ds are dining, drinking and dancing), even though its menu is now Mongolian.

Patricia Kelly, who has tended bar at Eddie’s Supper Club don’t pass up the campfire tenderloin for more than 30 years, explains what the establishments were like back in the day.

A supper club, Kelly says, “meant ambiance, class no muscle shirts and hair on the chest. It was men in suits and women in furs and diamonds and baby doll or Mary Jane high heels, with ’40s hair.”
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