Eye on the Little Belts: Webcams gaining ground
NEIHART — What started as a little hobby five years ago has become a phenom this fall.
Charley and Allyson Willett have gotten serious lately about their website Into the Little Belts (intothelittlebelts.com), which has webcam feeds of the area, photos, videos, maps and other things a visitor to the mountains east of Great Falls might need.
Willett has worked at Showdown Montana Ski Area for a dozen years. He's seen how small a share of tourism promotion dollars the area has.
A decade ago, Willett and friends started a website for skiers to find information about where to stay.
"I realized it was bigger than that. There wasn't camping, trail or other recreation information either," he said.
He started Into the Little Belts, but it mostly was on the back burner. Then he and his wife decided to get more serious about the site.
They've also tied social media channels to the site, which is helping people discover the website. They're on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
"We started getting more people telling us they love our webcams and information. We started to see a big increase to our website, and we're getting a strong following on social media," he said.
Next week, the Willetts are driving around to businesses from Belt to White Sulphur Springs to Harlowton to collect business information to add to the site. They want visitors to have accurate information on what's available in the area.
"The ultimate goal is to bring in more tourism," he said. "We want to boost the economy, get more business."
More information makes visitors more comfortable about coming.
"We've had calls and people saying they saw on the webcam it was a disaster on the roads so they decided not to come or they came because they thought it would be snowing but the roads were clear and dry," Willett said.
Nostalgia is bringing some people to Into the Little Belts, something he's already seen translate into visitors he met at the I (Heart) Neihart Festival.
Now he's starting to hear from some of the people involved in Montana tourism, and they're asking "What are you doing differently?"
Webcams are on the Willett house in Neihart and provides a live view of the highway, in White Sulphur Springs looking toward the Big Belts Mountains. One is slated for Monarch, and another coming to the Ranch Creek area on the southern side of the Kings Hill pass. They're still working on a spot for the fifth webcam for the site.
The idea is to have an "open source" website, so the community will contribute pictures, events and feel-good stories.
"Every single thing that happens in the Little Belts, we hope to have on our website," he said. "We want the community involved."
Another impetus behind the project is that it helps the Willett children get outside exploring nature. The family includes five children ages 5-11.
"We really want to encourage others to get their kids to the mountains and enjoy nature too. We hope our family may be an inspiration to other locals who might not realize how great of place the Little Belt Mountains are and what a great opportunity we have as Montanans," Willett said.
The Willetts are in the process of making the project an official nonprofit to start applying for grants and taking donations. Right now it's all coming out of their own pockets, and they hope other people will pitch in content to help make it work.
To submit information or photos to Into the Little Belts, email email@example.com or call 236-5547 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays.