Whitefish’s Economic Engine

By Beacon Staff

During the past decade, the tri-cities of Flathead County were the fastest growing places in Montana. Propelled by record growth, property valuations skyrocketed. The 2009 worldwide credit-fiasco depressed the valley leaving middle class prospects dismal.

Three years later, Whitefish is trudging back. Median home values again hover around late 2009 levels, which ballparks the pre-bubble values of the growth years. Today, Whitefish is the sole city in the Flathead posting recovery gains. Proper community planning protected property values.

For the coming years, Flathead taxing jurisdictions will see their budgets increase thanks to the formula used in the 2009 property tax reappraisals. Homeowners are stung by the Legislature’s failure to cap taxes. Due to the six-year phasing of reappraisal, taxes will be based upon 2006 benchmark values – increasing one-sixth annually.

The same cast of characters who served in the 2011 Montana Legislature seeks homeowner trust for the next session. They promise to fix the appraisal mess. Recall in 2009, Gov. Brian Schweitzer unsuccessfully asked the Legislature to freeze tax values. Schweitzer said the state should let the market stabilize. But the Legislature was laser-focused on nullifying all things federal, rather than offering a homeowner fix.

But petty partisanship aside, places like Whitefish continue to progress thanks to a positive attitude from locals.

Whitefish recently garnered state recognition – from the conservative Montana Contractors’ Association, for the downtown street work projects. The plan was initially snared in a web of created-controversy, as naysayers used downtown revitalization to wage a 2009 election year campaign against sitting Councilor Frank Sweeney.

Sweeney lost that election by slim margins, but came roaring back, posting an impressive win last November. Locals appreciate his no-nonsense leadership and advocacy of Whitefish.

The merchants association, called the Heart of Whitefish, works tirelessly to promote a stronger and more vibrant economy. Not only does downtown look great, it is thriving.

The Heart of Whitefish sponsors one of the best farmers’ markets in Montana. The market has become such an economic boost that downtown businesses acknowledge Tuesday nights are competitive with weekends.

Retail sales were up double digits over the previous summer. Tourist taxes are posting significant annual gains. As locals enjoy the Whitefish Winter Carnival, lodging claims good numbers of “heads in the beds.”

The carnival was rated a top-10 event in the world by National Geographic’s Traveler magazine. The magazine touted the Penguin Plunge as a “frigid dip into Whitefish Lake.”

Whitefish was paraded in Vogue magazine as a top destination town in the nation. Vogue pegged Whitefish enviably as “VIBE: Aspen the way it was.”

Nestled near Beaver Lake, the cross country skiing at Stillwater Mountain Lodge was rated top three in Montana by Yahoo sports news.

Allegiant Air announced a twice-weekly direct flight from California to Glacier Park International Airport. This is welcome news to San Francisco Bay skiers looking for Whitefish powder. But locals will appreciate the business, work and recreation aspects of air service.

Big-money investors are again taking notice of the Whitefish success by pumping millions of dollars in commercial revitalization back into downtown. This is good news for the local economy and middle-class construction workers. The hub of the community is clearly downtown. And locals know it.

Luckily for Whitefish, someone, sometime and somehow figured that the real economic engine of the city lay in protecting the most valuable assets of the community. The clean drinking water, the open public lands, the friendly business atmosphere and the great recreational outdoors preserve community and attract investment.

The local can-do attitude is all around Whitefish, easily seen in the sheer number of public and civic projects.

Economists say the power of positive attitude jolts economic depressions. Welcome back Whitefish, may your optimistic spirit again raise employment and resonate across Montana.