Can’t Fight City Hall

By Beacon Staff

The prospect that politicians may move City Hall out of the downtown, and onto the highway strip, will come as a shock to many residents. Whitefish has been pondering a newer City Hall for years, and by all accounts improvements are much needed to the aging structure.

The city will mostly use urban renewal funds to pay for the upgrades or a new building. These funds are property taxes that city taxpayers contribute for economic development purposes and to rid the city of “blight,” per the renewal plan.

Whitefish created a Tax Increment District in 1987 and the funds have been well invested to enhance the local tax base. At the time, local leaders decided to annually contribute the residential portion of the increment back to the school district.

Last year Whitefish rebated schools nearly $350,000. These arrangements lead to great educational opportunities – like the Whitefish Independent High School.

It is the existing partnership with Whitefish schools that keeps the urban renewal project a positive collaboration between public entities. Past visionaries created an important bond between economic development and education.

Municipalities must define an area as “blighted” before using tax increment financing to redevelop the area back to life. Defining a new commercial building as “blighted” makes a mockery of any plan. It articulates what members of the Montana Legislature have been saying for decades: urban renewal can be a slush fund for local politicians’ pet projects.

Last month, Whitefish Councilor John Muhlfeld indicated that a highway site (the old Mountain West Bank building) was too far from downtown and lacked investment opportunities for future public-private partnerships. Mayor Mike Jenson said that the site was not “pedestrian friendly” and that downtown locals would unlikely walk to the highway to access City Hall.

For many decades, Whitefish City Hall has provided a sense of place. The land was donated to the city back in the early 1900s by businessman Mokutaro Hori. Hori is remembered by old-timers as a generous man who operated many businesses, including a farm that produced vegetables for locals and train passengers traveling through the community.

The face of Whitefish City Hall has been covered up for decades. Locals have forgotten the original brick building that lay behind the metal façade. But as construction of the downtown American Bank and Whitefish Central School buildings aptly demonstrates, locals identify with strong architecture.

Keeping City Hall downtown Whitefish may resonate well with locals. But developers have long sought the commercialization of the highway strip entering the city. And moving City Hall to the highway would certainly advance that goal.

With Whitefish elections beginning a mere month from now, moving City Hall from its historic downtown location has become an election issue. In the mayor race, Councilor Turner Askew favors moving City Hall to the highway, while his challenger Muhlfeld finds the strip site the least desirable. Ultimately voters will decide the type of City Hall Whitefish retains.

The battle for a location for City Hall has become another fight for the character of Whitefish. Ed McGrew, who administers the social-media Facebook site “Informed Whitefish,” recently told the council that moving City Hall to the highway would be a “huge mistake.”

With City Hall reconstruction years away, politicians should adhere to the age-old rule, “first, do no harm.” Whitefish has many good things going and only a few will benefit if the town is transformed into just another strip-town in America.

Spending millions of dollars to purchase a commercial highway building, to remodel it into a new City Hall, may ultimately be viewed by taxpayers as simply a waste of money.

Old Whitefish City Hall needs some fixing. Those renovations can materialize when the municipality has more revenue and locals enjoy an improved economy. Today, Whitefish City Hall is well positioned downtown.

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