The chaos of summertime has given way to some breathing room at the beginning of fall, offering a chance for local municipal, tourism and business organizations to take stock of how the busiest season of the year went.
In 2015, the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana reported that nonresident visitors spent about $3.66 billion in the state. In the Flathead Valley, tourism has taken on a bigger role in the local economy since the recession.
Glacier National Park had a record-breaking visitor count this summer in what is the National Park Service’s centennial celebration: June had 429,909 visitors compared to 414,671 the year before; July had 818,481 compared to 689,064 in 2015; and August drew 736,868 visitors to the park, a major increase over the wildfire-filled August 2015, when 579,007 visited.
That 27 percent increase in August over last year’s visitation would normally signal little-to-no lodging vacancies in the Flathead, but so far, the hotel occupancy numbers are showing a soft summer.
“That average occupancy in Whitefish for July averaged about 83 percent,” said Dylan Boyle, executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau. “That means you could get a room in Whitefish any night this summer. That’s unheard of.”
There was a similar trend for hotels and motels in Kalispell, according to Kalispell Convention and Visitor Bureau Director Diane Medler.
“Occupancy was a little soft over the summer,” Medler said. “Typically in the summer you’re turning many people away each evening because you don’t have rooms. There wasn’t much of that.”
Both Boyle and Medler said they attribute the tame market to several factors. First, the valley’s inventory increased with new hotels in Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Whitefish, totaling more than 300 new available rooms. Peer-to-peer lodging, such as AirBnB and VRBO, also ate into the hotel occupancy rate, but Boyle said it’s difficult to track exactly how much because the number of available short-term rentals changes daily.
Another factor was increased RV and tent camping in Glacier Park, with 10 percent jumps over last year’s numbers in July, a 24.2 percent increase in August for tents, and a 42 percent increase in RV overnight stays. The lodges were also busy, reporting full occupancy at the Lake McDonald Lodge on the last day of the season.
“Campgrounds and camping in general was a real theme for this year’s national park centennial travelers,” Medler said.
The Kalispell Tourism Business Improvement District saw an increase of 10 percent in collections in its fourth quarter (April to June) compared to the same time last year, Medler said, but there was an inventory increase to consider, so in sum collections are about flat, perhaps up slightly.
Bed taxes, which are released on a quarterly basis as well — thus only April through June’s numbers are available so far — increased by 5 percent statewide, while Glacier Country saw an 8 percent increase. Kalispell, though, was down 2 percent, which Medler said could be explained with more inventory leading to cuts in room rates.
The low Canadian dollar also affected tourism from the north, Medler and Boyle said, but the Loonie is bouncing back; current exchange rates put it at about $0.76 to the American dollar.
The Whitefish Resort Tax has been steady this summer, Boyle said, though the WCVB was waiting on a quarterly report to determine the full trend.
Boyle said the projection for plenty of snow this winter will help with marketing projects in San Francisco — to which United flies direct — and in Chicago, another direct-flight city.
Kalispell saw major residential and commercial development over the summer, highlighted by health care expansions and additions. Kalispell planning director Tom Jentz said this summer blew annual averages out of the water.
“Our average construction year is about $60 million (in projects) for residential and commercial permits,” Jentz said. “We did that in June.”
The Immanuel Lutheran Communities’ remodel came in at about $40 million, while the new women’s and children’s center at Kalispell Regional Medical Center is another $40 million project. With the addition of a new gastrointestinal building for the hospital, an expansion on Herberger’s at the mall, the new Hobby Lobby, and new assisted living facilities, Jentz said Kalispell has seen about $100 million worth of development this year.
“Is it the trend that’s sustainable? No,” Jentz said. “But it’s just a fact that these projects are coming online. And once the construction is done, you have additional employment. It just creates a bigger engine for the city of Kalispell.”
There were 121 new residential and commercial building permits issued this year to date, with 105 in residential and 19 in commercial. Residential permits, which included 70 single-family homes and 35 townhouse/duplex projects, totaled $20 million. Commercial projects, including several that will be permitted in the next 30 days, will hit about $80 million.
“In 2015, it was $64 million for the whole year,” Jentz said.
In Whitefish, the number of building permits issued for residential and commercial projects for June through August stayed the same at 48 total, though June and July were higher by two and three, respectively, than in 2015. August was lower than last year, with 14 issued this year compared to 19 in 2015.
But in terms of dollars, last summer’s projects were bigger. June through August of 2015 had $24,488,033 worth of projects, while 2016’s permitted projects were worth $6,233,259. Last July, 13 projects cost more than $16 million, compared to 16 projects costing $3,884,505 this year.
In Columbia Falls, commercial and residential development topped $3,296,000 from May through September of this year, down slightly from $3,654,720 for the same time period in 2015. The city has added multiple restaurants, a bike shop, a hotel, and more so far this year.