Great Falls, Montana: 2016 Western Planner/MAP Conference

by Dan Pava, AICP, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Great Falls held a great conference! The recent Western Planner and Montana Association of Planners joint conference in Great Falls, on the banks of the Missouri River, may qualify for being the northernmost such meeting in the continental U.S. Of course, the legendary Alaska conference qualifies as the northernmost ever WP conference while Santa Fe may have been the southernmost so far.

The classic Great Falls Civic Center, constructed during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration, anchored all conference activities and provided a fine venue for networking through its rooms, halls, and stairways befitting of a 1930s government building. The design, materials, and workmanship coupled with this also being city hall added an official feeling to all of the proceedings.

The conference theme was “Landscapes, Landmarks, and Leadership” and there were three concurrent tracks with over 30 sessions, several mobile workshops around the region, and plenary sessions to pull it all together. There were also many exhibitors and sponsors sharing their wares strategically placed between the main meeting rooms, one of which was the city’s commission chambers. The other large meeting room, where plenary sessions were held, and meals served, was actually on the floor above the Planning and Community Development Department, which of course provided a solid foundation for such activities.

Tuesday evening brought more preconference excitement as thunderstorms caused some flooding in and around the city. This weather seemed to channel similar phenomena in Cheyenne during our Western Planner conference there several years ago.

Rather than partake of the session offerings on Wednesday morning, I opted to join a mobile workshop of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, thereby getting a bit of a tour of the districts beyond downtown Great Falls. I found the accounts of the expedition by the Corps of Discovery particularly pertinent because I was speaking that afternoon about “Saving the Wild in the West.” Over two centuries since, our relationship to these western lands and the indigenous peoples remains a struggle and opportunity.

Tuesday night’s storms changed the plans and location for the Wednesday evening reception: the Charles M. Russel Museum flooded so we enjoyed refreshments among the compelling contemporary and folk art at the Paris Gibson Square Museum which had been a school from 1896 until 1975. Credit goes to the conference organizers, and particularly to Galen Steffens, for their resilience planning approach, making this a fun event and not a washout.
The opening plenary talk by nature author Gary Ferguson on Thursday morning provided a fresh perspective as he shared his insights about our relationship to nature and the environment, and the important role that planners can play in making what he calls a bigger tent of inclusivity toward appreciating full ecology in our Western landscapes and communities.

Rather than spend a day completely in sessions, I opted after lunch one day to join my friend Jim Strozier on a bicycle expedition on the trails along the Missouri. I highly recommend such physical activity when attending planning conferences because it contributes to understanding and orientation in a way that only attending panels cannot.

As always, Wyoming won the softball game with the help of ex-pats from other Western Planner states. Folksy music by the Double Down Duo further enhanced the annual barbecue and awards ceremony held on a rain-free Thursday evening in Gibson Park. No two Western Planner conferences are the same. In fact, we hold them in places that guarantee you will have a different and worthwhile experience while having lots of fun. Great Falls was no exception to this Western Planner tradition.

So consider joining us as part of your Western Planners network next time when we meet in Spearfish, South Dakota on September 12-15, for the next Western Planner Conference. The theme is “Head 2 the Hills…..Partners in Progress.”

Thank you to the Conference Planning Committee and MAP for hosting a great event! Special thanks to the many sponsors who made it possible!


The Western Planner | Montana Association of Planners | Western Central Chapter - APA |  City of Great Falls, Montana


Ayers Associates | Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW) | DOWL | Great Falls MT Tourism Business Improvement District | KLJ | Sanderson Stewart | Woith Engineering Inc. in partnership with MT Building Industry Association and GF Home Builders


APA New Mexico Chapter | CTA| Montana Association of Registered Land Surveyors | North Dakota Planning Association | Urgrin, Alexander, Zadick & Higgins


Community Builders | Consensus Planning | DNRC Floodplain Program | Eagle Beverage | Farran Realty Partners | Great Falls Association of REALTORS | Land Solutions, LLC | NeighborWorks Great Falls | Robert Peccia & Associates

Dan Pava, AICP, is an environmental planner at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He has over 30 years experience in land use planning. Please contact him at