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Montana’s specialized plate menu features 47 varieties

Lewis & Clark most popular offering

By Sonja Lee
Great Falls Tribune

License plates featuring explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are the most popular specialty plates sold in Montana.

Picturesque Glacier National Park plates come in second.

As of January, a total of 12,510 Lewis and Clark Bicentennial plates were on vehicles that routinely travel Montana's roadways.

There were 10,724 renewals and first-time purchases of Glacier National Park license plates.

Third place went to Gallatin County Open Lands, with 7,712 plates.

In Montana there are 47 different organizations selling specialty license plates, said Dean Roberts, administrator of the state's Motor Vehicle Division. The latest two organizations include the Bridger Bowl Foundation and Planned Parenthood.

The profits from specialty plates go to nonprofit organizations.

"Between $1 million and $1.5 million has been raised for charitable organizations," Roberts said. "They are using that money for good things."

Collegiate plates and military plates outnumber the newer specialty plates, but the wide-variety of specialized plates, ranging from Friends of Makoshika State Park near Glendive to the Montana State Golfers Association, are becoming increasingly popular.

Vehicle owners pay additional money to obtain the plates. The prices vary. For example, vehicle owners must pay an initial $35 fee to get a Montana Weed Control Association license plate, but to have a Museum of the Rockies plate, a driver has to fork over a $65 fee.

In 2000 Montana's new license plates, which have been called bland, hit the roads. A year later the Legislature agreed to offer a greater variety of license plates. Nonprofit organizations can pay a fee and request specialty plates.

During the last legislative session, lawmakers raised the fee from $1,200 to $4,000 for an organization to request a plate.

Roberts said the increase in cost has greatly slowed down the number of organizations applying.

"In the last four or five months we have only had 10 or so," he said.

If an organization fails to sell 400 sets of plates in a 12-month period after three years, they are pulled.

Several organizations are just getting started, Roberts said.

"The people who have these plates really market them," he said.

Christy Stensland, secretary of the Board of Directors of the Wolf Point Historical Development Inc., said the Wolf Point "Cowboy Hall of Fame" plates hit the streets in November. Money raised goes into the building fund for the hall of fame.

The Historical Development group is advertising the plates on a Web site and also marketing them in trade and news publications. The plates also are on display during fundraising events, Stensland said.

License plate sales are an important funding source, said Clint Blackwood, director of Montana's Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission.

He said it's great that the Bicentennial plates are so popular. Blackwood said because the organization was one of the first to sell its plates, sales also have been strong.

"I would like to think that it's because people like the design and have an affinity with Lewis and Clark. It's part of our ancestry and who we are," he said.

Plate sales have brought in about $442,000, Blackwood said. In the first couple months of 2004, another $26,470 was raised.

Proceeds are put toward Lewis and Clark projects in the state, specifically those tied to the bicentennial. The plates only will be sold through 2007.

There are 58 Great Falls High School license plates on vehicles cruising the local streets. Great Falls High Principal Fred Anderson has the distinction of owning Great Falls High plate No. 1.

On a recent trip down 10th Avenue South, a carload of young men rolled up next to him and asked if he was the Great Falls High Principal. He responded yes, and asked how they guessed it.

"One of the guys said to me, 'Well any idiot could figure it out reading your license plates'," Anderson said.

"Then he went on to warn me, 'Man, don't take that car to any cross-town games. You might as well put a bulls-eye on it,'" said Anderson.

The plates went on sale in the fall, and to date the district has earned about $1,200 back on its investment, Anderson said. Proceeds go into the school's activities account.

While Anderson shows his allegiance to Great Falls High, many in Montana stick with their college colors.
Across the state, the two different Montana Grizzly license plates outsell Montana State University Bobcat plates. There are 6,505 University of Montana plates in the state and 3,664 Bobcat plates.

In Cascade County it's a close race. There are 454 University of Montana plates and 401 Montana State University plates.
There are also special plates for the University of Great Falls.

Local governments are getting involved in the license plate business, as well.

Browning Mayor William Morris said the $2,635 raised from selling Town of Browning plates goes toward beautification projects in the community. In February about 40 sets of license plates sold, he said.

By the end of 2003, there were 75 City of Shelby plates sold, including one in Lewis and Clark County.

"Sales are picking up more and more as people re-license their vehicles," said Mayor Larry Bonderud.

Proceeds are shared between the local Booster Club and the Shelby Chamber of Commerce theme committee

The Booster Club has committed the money to scholarship programs, he said. The chamber is using the extra cash for community projects, like a new six-mile walking trail."A lot of people wonder what they can do to help out in the community, and this is something real easy they can do," Bonderud said.

License plate collectors from around the world also have picked up the plates, he said. And most organizations, including Shelby, sell wall clocks made from the plates.