Thursday, November 26, 2020
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Bigfork clock tower to get tech upgrade

by BRET ANNE SERBIN
Daily Inter Lake | November 21, 2020 12:00 AM

Downtown Bigfork will be humming a different tune in the next few weeks. The iconic clock tower that overlooks the town from above the Bigfork Art and Cultural Center is getting a much-needed technological upgrade that could be ready to serenade the town in time for Christmas.

“It’s going to sound 100% better,” promised Tara Allen, who spearheaded the initial effort to install the clock tower in 2011.

Allen and her friend Michelle Bell originally concocted the idea to incorporate a clock tower into the Bigfork landscape nearly a decade ago when they were having a meal at Grille 459. Bell noticed the empty space where a clock tower had once stood for decades in a building that has since been converted into condominiums.

The pair of enterprising friends set off immediately after their meal to check out the clock tower in Whitefish. They knew their neighbors to the north had a clock tower and figured Bigfork could use a similar landmark.

But even though they drew inspiration from the clock tower in Whitefish, Allen also made it clear they wanted the Bigfork tower to be its own entity, unique to the unincorporated bayside town and everything that makes it special.

“We want to keep Bigfork’s historic character," Allen said. "Our number one goal is to keep Bigfork’s charm."

With that in mind, Allen aimed for the clock tower to fit with Bigfork’s reputation as “Montana’s Christmas village.” From the start, the idea was to play Christmas music and decorate the clocktower as part of the traditional Decorating Day festivities.

But Allen ran into into a few roadblocks before the clock tower finally took its place among the charming holiday scenery in Bigfork.

Although there had once been a Bigfork clock tower in one of the older downtown buildings, the space that first inspired Allen and Bell had long since lost its clock. When Allen approached the building owner about adding the structure back into the space, she said he couldn’t commit to the project.

So Allen began a search for a new location to build a clock tower.

It soon worked out that the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork was interested in the idea, and it seemed like a relatively straightforward solution to simply build the clock tower atop the building owned by the organization.

But Allen said she was met with “some really adverse reactions” from community members who believed the CFBB should spend its funds on other efforts throughout the town. She remembered receiving complaints from locals who felt “tourists don’t need to know what time it is.”

So Allen, undeterred, returned to the drawing board once again.

If Allen could find the money, the CFBB was still on board to put it into place above their building. So she set up a separate fundraiser, with a goal of raising $10,000 to build the tower and install a sound system that would broadcast throughout Bigfork.

To Allen’s amazement, the community quickly came together and raised about $12,000, mostly through a fundraising event that only lasted a single night. In three months, the clock tower went to an idle idea between friends to a fully-funded project, ready for the first bricks to be laid.

“The people were all in. That’s why it was so easy,” Allen recalled. “It’s fun when things come together like that.”

The tower was erected the following year. George Gibson designed the tower itself, and Peter Hoveland of Mountain High Construction built the structure.

The Missouri company Americlock provided the clock face. It was the company’s first installation in Northwest Montana, and they later worked on the clock for the historic courthouse in downtown Kalispell as well.

Since 2012, the clock tower has been broadcasting tunes such as “Whistle while you work” on Decorating Day and The Nutcracker Theme whenever the ballet is performing.

But after eight years, Allen said the technological system the clock uses has become “a little bit antiquated.”

The songs need to be manually programmed in a tiny closet inside the Bigfork Arts and Cultural Center a week in advance of the date they are going to be played, and the speakers have a limited range for the tunes they’re able to broadcast.

As a result, the CFBB is working on trading in their older model and installing a high-tech, updated system. The new setup can be programmed from a computer—rather than a cramped closet—and it has the capability to play twice as many songs, according to Allen. She said the upgrade will also make the clock light up at night and change the time on the clock automatically.

All that’s left in the process of modernizing the clock tower is to test out the new system. Allen said the CFBB is on the lookout for a particularly technologically savvy helper to assist with getting everything up and running.

Based on her earlier experiences rallying the community around the clock tower, Allen is optimistic the new system could be good to go in time for the holidays.

“I think it’s one of the testaments to this town: a couple of people can have an idea, and the town will come together to make it happen,” she said.

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at (406)-758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com.