WHITEFISH – The June 30 groundbreaking of a $5 million hotel expansion that will impact wetlands in Whitefish was a surprisingly low-key affair.
Instead of waving signs of protest, conservationists in attendance smiled for photos and toasted champagne right alongside landowners, developers, builders and contractors of The Lodge at Whitefish Lake’s new construction project.
“This is a special project – each of you should be proud of yourselves. After two years, it’s nice to see something happening,” said Dan Averill, who along with sons Sean and Brian developed The Lodge and later purchased 37 acres of wooded property across the street on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue.
Averill said the plan to collaborate with local environmentalists to protect the wetlands was hatched one night in 2007, over a beer with Jim Colla, a member of the Friends of Wisconsin Avenue Wetlands.
The nonprofit group formed in 2006 to fight a project proposed by previous landowners to construct a resort called The Boardwalk at Whitefish on 42 acres of the wetland site.
“I was somewhat opposed to that and pro this,” Colla said of his support for the Averills’ project.
After The Boardwalk project was pulled, the Averills purchased the land for their Viking Creek development and proposed handing 30 acres over to the Whitefish Lake Institute for conservation and pledged $110,000 for wetlands restoration.
Sean, construction manager for the project, said The Lodge was in need of more rooms to support larger groups wanting to stay at the hotel. Viking Creek Day Lodge will have 32 guest rooms and a skywalk over Wisconsin Ave. connecting it to the main hotel.
In the project’s original plans, a spa addition to the new lodge and a subdivision with single-family lots were also proposed, but the younger Averill said they have been put on hold “because of the economy.”
Aaron Wallace, owner of architectural firm Grover and Company, hired to design Viking Creek, said the new lodge will have a distinctive feel, yet it will also tie in with the rest of the facilities at the hotel.
At the groundbreaking, two renderings displayed in front of the lot slotted for the project showed an almost identical pair of buildings across the road from one another, connected by a skywalk.
“The skywalk is pretty special and unique,” Gabe Thomas, with general contractors GT Builders of Kalispell, said, wielding a shovel at the ceremony. “It will be pretty impressive.”
About 150 workers began excavating and clearing the lot on July 1, and Thomas said he hopes to have the lodge up and running by May 1, 2010.
He said he didn’t think construction would affect the fragile wetlands nearby, as they had been surveyed and marked so builders could recognize the boundaries.
Amy Chadwick, senior watershed scientists and wetland/riparian specialist with Watershed Consulting in Kalispell was also among the 25 to 30 people gathered under the sizzling sun last week to celebrate the groundbreaking.
Chadwick said she and Mike Koopal, executive director of the Whitefish Lake Institute, designed the restoration plan. The two will also oversee wetland mitigation.
She said it was nice to see the landowners, developers, contractors and nonprofit groups working so well together.
“That is my favorite part of the project,” she said.
The $110,000 provided by the Averills will help pay for the construction of an interpretive trail for the public, which Koopal said he hopes to open in June of 2010.
He described the area as a wetland/upland mosaic and spruce/skunk cabbage ecosystem with a high degree of diverse wildlife such as moose, bear and deer. Trail cameras put up by the group even spotted a mountain lion wandering through.
Despite the fragile environment, Koopal agreed that negotiations between conservationists and developers went smoothly.
“It’s a good model for other development in the Flathead,” he said.
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