At Whitefish Resort, Searching for a Sign

By Beacon Staff

A month of vandalism on road signs guiding the way to Whitefish Mountain Resort has left carloads of tourists lost, driving aimlessly in the night searching for signs that don’t exist.

Heidi Borg of the Kandahar Lodge at Whitefish Mountain Resort said 25 to 30 percent – up to five carloads a day – of her customers have gotten lost since the vandalism began. Some arrive angry, others arrive in the middle of the night too exhausted to be angry. She said her business is only one of many affected by the vandalism.

“It’s a big issue,” Borg said. “People are feeling upset about getting lost and sitting on the road. People are upset with us. It’s definitely something that they’re expressing to us – the lack of signage.”

About a month ago vandals stole the “Big Mountain” portion of a welcome sign on the skier bridge at the village’s entrance, leaving the sign with just the word “Welcome.” Shortly afterward, vandals stole the large “Big Mountain” sign at the bottom of Big Mountain Road. It was replaced with a Whitefish Mountain Resort sign, which subsequently was covered with graffiti and cleaned, then covered with graffiti and cleaned again, then knocked down with a car, all within a week. It has not been replaced as of this writing, though a Big Mountain Road street sign was put up.

It is hard to say when another sign will go up, said Nick Polumbus, director of marketing and sales at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Whenever it does go up, he said, it will say “Whitefish Mountain Resort.”

“That’s our name,” he said.

Brian Schott, the resort’s spokesperson, said he views the vandalism as isolated incidents and doesn’t fear long-term trends, calling the stolen signs possible Big Mountain “mementos.”

“It’s one of these issues that you don’t want to blow out of proportion,” he said. “It’s some disgruntled member of society.”

According to Detective Lieutenant Roger Bergstrom of the Whitefish Police Department, somebody cut the wood posts of the Whitefish Mountain Resort sign to weaken it and then ran over it with a car. Crimestoppers is investigating the case, but has no tips so far.

“Who knows how deep and how long this is going to continue,” Bergstrom said. “It will take help from public. Until that happens we’re all whistling in the dark.”

Bergstrom agreed with Schott that one single perpetrator is most likely responsible for all the vandalism.

“You don’t know how little or how much it takes to ratchet up a twerp who wants to do vandalism,” Bergstrom said. “In actuality it’s just one idiot who’s doing the work.”

Without a sign to show where to turn onto Big Mountain Road, many resort-goers keep driving on East Lakeshore Drive. Borg said that by the time customers figure out they’ve missed their turn, either by calling the lodge or just by intuition, they still need to navigate through Big Mountain Road construction once they find the turn.

“We’ve been telling our guests to turn at the sign,” Borg said. “What sign? There is no sign.”

Though road construction exacerbates the problem, especially with already frustrated customers driving in the middle of the night, Borg was quick not to point fingers, describing construction as a necessary undertaking. Still, after being lost, it’s hard for customers to endure 5 miles of potentially confusing road construction.

“They think they’ve turned wrong or gone too far,” she said. “Five miles to people who are tired, who’ve driven and flown so long – it seems like a lot.”

On top of all that, she said, Mapquest gives the wrong directions to any Big Mountain or Whitefish Mountain Resort listings, including her lodge. The popular Web site leads people up Iron Horse Drive instead of Big Mountain Road.

“We’re e-mailing Mapquest right now to say they have the wrong directions,” Borg said.

Borg said the new street sign helps, though it isn’t nearly as effective as the big sign was. People are better off looking for the flashing yellow light to mark the turn, she said.

This isn’t the first time disgruntled Flathead citizens have torn down signs in protest, Bergstrom said. It is the first repeat case he can remember, though, since the House of Mystery put up gaudy yellow signs more than 15 years ago. Vandals took down the House of Mystery signs seven or eight times, even chainsawing through steel braces attached to deter further vandalism.

Current House of Mystery and Montana Vortex co-owner Ali Hauser wasn’t the owner yet at the time, but she did say that a Ten Commandments sign put up on her property by an unaffiliated business has been ripped down twice by vandals in the past year.

Polumbus said the vandalism reflects a need to expand dialogue between the community and the resort, particularly to address the “vocal minority that has a negative spin” on the name change. Schott said the resort is going to make announcements about new ways to open up public discussion, possibly coffee with the marketing director or a Web site that serves as a forum.

“It’s incumbent on us to continue the dialogue and explain that what we’re trying to do here is more closely align with Whitefish,” Polumbus said. “I think they need to see it and then they’ll believe it a little more. It’s the cowardly graffiti vandalism that just doesn’t do anybody any good.”