By Michael J. Billoni
Senior Contributing Writer
Growing up on a farm in Quebec, Canada, Cyndy Montana knows a thing or two about hard work and putting in long hours to get the work done. Her parents were her role models and prepared her well for the outside world, but there was no preparation for what occurred to her and her family in the spring of 2020.
After earning a degree in commerce from John Abbott College in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec, Montana graduated from the University of Guelph in 1996 with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, specializing in hotel and food service administration. She also became interested in philanthropy, fundraising and public relations, leading to a position with The Four Seasons Toronto; the front office manager at The Prince of Wales in Niagara on the Lake; the development coordinator for Women’s Place, a shelter for abused women and children in St. Catharines, Ontario; and the fundraising and public relations officer for Brock University in Toronto.
Nearly 20 years ago, she relocated to Grand Island, “absolutely falling in love with the town,” and now calls Grand Island “the forever home!” for her and her daughter, Kaylee, and son, Jaxen. While here, she opened and operated Grand Island Limousine and worked in Town Hall for a year as assistant to the supervisor.
However, she always wanted to do something really big with her Montana International LLC business.
The opportunity came early in 2019 when she bid on a contract with New York state to manage guest services at all state parks on Grand Island, which includes a golf course and small restaurant, two marinas, a beach concession, a special event center, a brand-new outdoor restaurant and, eventually, a campground. In the past, the contract had been held by billion-dollar local food service companies Rich Products Corp. and Delaware North.
“When we decided to bid on the contract, we assumed we were bidding against the likes of Delaware North, and it truly felt like a David and Goliath story,” Montana said this week between conducting job interviews. “When we actually won the bid in February 2019 and I signed a 20-year contract with the state of New York, we were over the moon excited – but also a little surprised!
“I took on this extremely large financial commitment, because I believe my diverse professional background, my work ethic as a Canadian farmer’s daughter, my love for customer service, and my passion for Grand Island will bolster a dream to bring life back to Beaver Island State Park.
“Another goal of ours is to truly create these three New York state parks as the jewel in the crown for Grand Island as the town develops this area into a year-round ecotourism destination.”
Beaver Island State Park is located at the south end of the Island in the upper Niagara River. The 950-acre park has a half-mile sandy beach for swimming, an adjacent 80-slip marina with both seasonal and transient boat slips, fishing access, car-top boat launch, multiple canoe/kayak launches, bike and nature trails, a nature center, playgrounds, picnic areas, athletic fields, horseshoe pits, an 18-hole championship disc golf course, and a golf course.
Also located in the park is the River Lea house and museum, home to the Grand Island Historical Society. It was built by William Cleveland Allen, cousin to Grover Cleveland, who visited the family farm on several occasions. In winter, visitors can snowmobile by permit, cross-country ski, snowshoe, sled or ice fish. Waterfowl hunting is allowed in-season by permit.
Montana International spent the 2019 season operating the 18-hole championship Beaver Island Golf Course, plus Beaver Island Marina, Big Six Marina, The Falconwood Special Events Center, The V'Randa, an outdoor bar/restaurant overlooking the Niagara River, and The Sand Stand, the beach concessions that services the Beaver Island State Park Beach. The contract also calls for Montana International building a campground.
A sampling of the banquet fare at The Falconwood.
A new hole sign at the 18-hole championship Beaver Island Golf Course.
“In 2019, we were brimming with ideas and plans to improve the guest experiences in all locations,” Montana said. “Our team was so excited to bring life back to Beaver Island State Park that we really could not wait for 2020 to get here to implement some of these plans.”
Montana’s daughter, Kaylee, works banquets and at The V'Randa, while her son, Jaxen, is at the golf course.
Plans were progressing until the coronavirus hit.
“It was devastating,” Montana said, her voice lowering and eyes watering. “All of our well-laid plans were halted, and the world literally turned upside down. In response to the need for outdoor dining in 2020, we opened an outdoor restaurant, The V’Randa, a tribute to my parents and the farm I grew up on in Quebec. Back then, the verandah is where our family would relax, eat, celebrate and enjoy the view … all the things we want our guests to do at The V'Randa!”
She continued, “I guess, looking back on it, that was the one good thing for us that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic. It certainly wasn't an easy time but, with government assistance and some substantial personal financial investment, we survived the COVID years,” which she said included 2020, 2021 and even 2022.
“We expected 2022 to be a turning point for our operation, but it really wasn't, because people weren't back to living life again – and it was almost impossible to find people to work,” Montana said.
On the cusp of opening for a fifth season, Montana, an eternal optimist, emphasized, “But, I truly believe 2023 is our new beginning!”
She said that with some facts to back up that statement.
The Falconwood Event Center has been extremely busy year-round, hosting all types of events, while receiving consistent five-star reviews. Montana International is also planning upgrades to the event space to make it more sophisticated – and to allow it to use the outdoor space on the shoulder seasons, since it boasts one of the best views in Western New York, overlooking the mighty Niagara River across from Canada.
“Our goal is to make The Falconwood an elite event destination in WNY,” she said.
Her team already has weddings and other private events booked, along with public events such as The Yachtfathers band playing on The Terrace at The Falconwood April 28; a Mother's Day brunch; a Father’s Day event; and “The Dueling Pianos” will return, this time playing with the Niagara River as the backdrop. Tickets and more information can be found at https://montanainternational.us/upcoming-events/.
The V'Randa has a new chef and new menu. It has designed a new layout for an improved guest experience. The V’Randa opens May 3. There is a contest wherein someone can win a huge give-a-way by submitting their name at https://montanainternational.us/thevranda/. Up for grabs is a private chef's tasting on May 16, with wine pairing for the winner plus nine guests.
Beaver Island Golf Course is opening any day now and, once the course is dry enough, a fleet of new golf carts will roll out.
“They are beautiful,” Montana said. “We have flipped the course, added new hole signs, and are working diligently to make it safer and more fun to play the BIGC!”
Bogey's, the golf course restaurant, will open again along with live music. The Hub, the course’s pro shop, will also offer items any parkgoer may have forgotten.
The Beaver Island Marina is slated for a full renovation in 2024, and Big Six Marina was recently renovated. Both marinas open for the season May 6. Gas, beer, snacks and bathing supplies are sold at Big Six Marina. The marina still has a few slips available for seasonal rental.
The Sand Stand on the sandy beach will be open Memorial Day weekend, offering food, ice cream, bee, and seltzers for beachgoers and parkgoers alike.
New York state operates nine pavilions throughout Beaver Island State Park. Prices range from $75 to $125, and they can accommodate 50 to 150 people. Check availability at ReserveAmerica.com or call 716-773-3271.
Montana, who likes to say, “The harder I work, the luckier I become,” added, "I've talked a lot about hope in the past, and it's been a tough few years, but hope is back in full force! We are incredibly excited about all the plans in the works to make the guest experience at all our outlets memorable and impressive.
“We will have more than 100 staff working this summer, and we managed to keep staff working through COVID except for a brief few months when even I was laid off. I am very proud of that fact. I know 2023 is going to be an amazing year when we are finally able to showcase what we are good at: making guests happy and giving them great experiences!
“I say that with confidence, because the Montana International team is amazing. They have big hearts, they are all hard workers, and we are all working towards a common vision. We would be nothing without this team, and I am so proud of them, and appreciate every single person who helps bring our vision to life!"