Red Light District Becomes Hip Downtown

By Beacon Staff

More than once in its life, the Whitefish Railway District has re-invented itself. And now, it’s re-inventing itself again. A wave of new businesses have launched in the past several years – well over 10 in the past year alone – in renovated historic railroad homes and new multi-use townhouses. They are banding together to form an identity – a vibrant alternative, perhaps hip contrast to bar-heavy Central Avenue. With a new bike trail on its edge and the influx of new business blood, the district is gaining vitality.

Putting a face on the district culminated in an inaugural Memorial Day Weekend Block Party – a “daydream” as called by organizers Brooke Bohannon and Maggie Eisenbarth, owners of La Boheme Curio Shop. Thrown by 21 of the district’s eclectic businesses ranging from restaurants to retail, the free Block Party began with kids’ activities and ended with street dancing on Lupfer Avenue to Cocinando’s Latin romps.

This is one of Whitefish’s oldest districts. Walk two blocks over from Central into the historic railway district, and you’ve walked into what a century ago used to be the Red Light District complete with hotels, bars and brothels. In a crime crackdown, early city fathers revoked liquor licenses and tried to enforce anti-gambling laws. When the new school was built nearby, the city council finally closed Red Light District for good in 1912.

Located in the blocks between Baker Avenue, O’Brien Avenue, Highway 93, and Railway Street, the district is now attracting a young collection of retail shops, restaurants, salons, and professional offices. “They’re hidden treasure-type stores, not mainstream,” says Bohannon.

Tucked in the alley in a tiny red barn with a fenced grass yard and inviting garden, Bohannon and Eisenbarth’s year-old business is typical of the district’s unique retail shops. (You’ll even find a photo of the pair together in their first grade class in Vermont.) With vintage clothing, jewelry, and diverse arts and crafts, the duo needed a small location for their first venture and a place where Eisenbarth’s kids could hang out. “Rent was half the price of Central Avenue,” Eisenbarth adds. “It’s not an intimidating location.”

Other merchants echo Eisenbarth. When Aimee Alexander, owner of Knit ‘N Needle Yarn Shoppe, searched for a location for her business, she landed in the Railway District for its affordability. “Our customers like this type of setting – quaint and comfortable,” she notes.

When she moved in four years ago, the city had just begun improvements to the deep potholed narrow roads. Streets were widened, sidewalks added, and trees planted –all making the neighborhood more accessible and inviting for visitors as a walking district. Foot and bicycle traffic has increased due to the city’s adjacent Fish Trail.

Most business owners in the four square block area tend to be young – in their thirties and forties. Like the curio and yarn shops, at least 11 businesses are women-owned. Only a handful have been around more than a decade. With more than 10 new businesses in the past year, those that survive the first anniversary seem to be mainstays. The White Room, a mountain shop specializing in winter backcountry ski gear and winter and summer hiking equipment, opened only 18 months ago, but has already garnered a loyal clientele.

Six restaurants – Mama Blanca’s, Loula’s, Mambo Italiano, Quickee’s, Bean Hive, and Pescado Blanco – provide a backbone for drawing diners. With four serving dinner, the streets are lively in the evening. “Parking is starting to become an issue, and it never was,” says Alexander.

Professional offices sprinkle in between shops, restaurants, and residences. “We’re in creative alley here,” says Lisa Jones of LJ Communications. Her office on the courtyard level of a new commercial building sits adjacent to Heath Korvola Photographic, Cantik Design Studio, Treiweiler Law Firm, and Zane Ray Group e-commerce consultants – all of which moved in during the past year.

Around every corner, hammers pound in renovation projects as new businesses open shop. In early May, Fifty Seven Boutique – selling trendy jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts, and accessories – opened adjacent to Reecia’s Salon in the old yoga center.

A block away, owner Craig Prather puts finishing touches on Great Northern Cycles and Daily Habit Coffee Bar for an early June opening. The shop will specialize in high end road and mountain bikes as well as caffeine. You can even make your own blended coffee drink with his bicycle-propelled blender. “The Railway District provided me with a smaller intimate setting where I could do hands on ownership, doing everything myself,” says Prather, who came from Jackson, Wyo. “It had everything Jackson was losing.”

Eisenbarth and Bohannon hope to build a Railway District Merchant’s Association to hold events, purchase advertising, and create publications to promote the destination. Bohannon says, “The Railway District will continue to grow, but Wal-Mart won’t be here.”