Whitefish’s Downtown Renaissance

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – When Marshall Friedman walks through downtown Whitefish, he doesn’t see a recession. He sees a renaissance. And nowhere is it more evident than a section of Central Avenue and First Street where deep-pocketed investors and ambitious developers are putting their unmistakable stamp on the city’s core.

In the past year, the area has seen buildings completely torn down to be replaced or thoroughly remodeled, empty lots purchased and new businesses opened, all to the delight of investors like Friedman.

“What’s happening in downtown Whitefish looks like what would be happening in a boom economy,” Friedman said. “It’s almost shocking.”

“Everyone feels that Whitefish at some point is going to have a very, very strong return to a very active real estate market,” he added. “The investors are going to where the major part of the growth is going to be, and that’s downtown.”

Friedman is a partner in the Western Montana Real Estate Fund, which owns the 100 Central Avenue building that houses Piney Creek Interiors, as well as property in the Railway District and elsewhere. In addition to Friedman, the investment group includes Cameron Blake, Larry Cates, Alan Elm and Rick Blake.

In 2007, the real estate fund acquired the 100 Central building, which rests at the corner of Central and First Street, a location Cates calls Whitefish’s “center of gravity.” The building was vacant following the shutdown of music hub Flanagan’s Central Station. The new owners conducted a series of major renovations on both the inside and outside of the facility. In 2010, Piney Creek Interiors moved into the building and then last year a gallery opened on the second floor.

Over the past year, two of the other three corners on Central and First have also been taken off the market, forming a triangle of real estate potential that has investors giddy with expectations, especially now that the city’s three-year street improvements project is finished and cars can freely maneuver through downtown.

Additionally, the remodeled Red Caboose Frozen Yogurt + Coffee began operating last year, while next door Cooper’s Eatery and Drinkery has opened after a thorough makeover of its Central Avenue location.

“All these things that we had hoped would happen over time appear to be falling into place,” Cates said. “From a longer-term real estate standpoint, it’s been a tough couple years but we see good things happening and we’re in it for the long run.”

Eric Payne, owner of Frontier Builders, purchased Casey’s Bar on the corner of Central and First in 2011, bulldozed it after discovering numerous flaws in its structural integrity and is now in the process of building a three-floor nightclub with an additional heated rooftop level. Payne is also a partner in Whitefish Frontiers LLC, a group that owns the empty but highly valued lot next to Craggy Range Bar and Grill.

Whitefish Frontiers purchased the large vacant lot in November from American Bank, Payne said. Two months earlier, Whitefish Frontiers bought the building currently housing Remedies Day Spa and Amazing Crepes on Central Avenue.

Payne is currently using the Craggy lot as a staging ground for his Casey’s operations. He’s not sure what the future holds for the land, though he’s well aware of the vast potential of a downtown centerpiece property that has no structures on it. There has been chatter over the lot someday holding a hotel, which Payne said could be a possibility, among others.

“We’re going to look at all the options for this pretty important piece of property for downtown,” he said.

Payne’s attention is understandably elsewhere at the moment. Since starting site work at Casey’s in September, crews have been laboring six days a week, mostly on sub-surface foundational work though last week the first-level floor was taking shape. Payne is considering a second shift to help crews finish by the deadline goal of Memorial Day weekend.

When finished, Casey’s will have a first floor with an open area up front, providing an atmosphere for a meal with a nice glass of wine, while in the back there will be a bar and casino. The second level will be a dance floor and bar with a third-level mezzanine overlooking it. Then there’s the highly anticipated heated rooftop level with a grill and walls, which Payne believes will be the only open rooftop bar in the state.

In total, Casey’s will be 17,000 square feet, enough space to accommodate a variety of events and clientele on its different levels, Payne said.

“We feel like we’re going to have a venue for everyone,” he said. “It’s a pretty massive facility for this town.”

“Basically we’re trying to build a new state-of-the-art facility that still feels like an old pub, so it fits in with the rest of Whitefish,” he added.

Like Friedman, Payne sees the recent Central Avenue developments, from his own project to 100 Central to the Red Caboose to Cooper’s, as signs of a downtown renaissance.

“It adds credibility to all of downtown that all these people think it’s a good investment,” Payne said. “It’s not just one investor.”

Friedman tracks the current trend of well-funded investors focusing on downtown back to financial mogul William Foley’s real estate transactions. In 2007, Foley formed the Glacier Restaurant Group, which consists of the Craggy Range Bar and Grill, Ciao Mambo and MacKenzie River Pizza Co. He also owns Latitude 48 Bistro and Red Room Basement Bar.

“Foley came along and it kind of took off,” Friedman said. “Now all of a sudden you have all these big players. To me it sends a major-league message that some smart money thinks downtown is going to be really, really vibrant.”