The Whitefish City Council voted last week to move forward with designs for a new City Hall at its current downtown site and to proceed with an attached parking garage.
At a May 20 meeting, which featured nearly four hours of public comment and debate, council members voted 4-3 in favor of the parking structure, rather than proposed surface parking, with Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld casting the deciding vote and breaking a 3-3 tie just before midnight.
Also part of the decision was a council vote to consider establishing a Business Improvement District, within which downtown businesses would pay the annual costs associated with the operation and maintenance of the parking structure. Such costs would be based on annual assessments, and could fall between $100,000 and $200,000 each year.
Votes in favor of the motion were John Anderson, Richard Hildner and Frank Sweeney, while Chris Hyatt, Bill Kahle and Phil Mitchell voted in opposition.
Recent feasibility studies reveal a parking shortage of more than 200 spaces in downtown Whitefish, a deficit that has rankled business owners, and which could grow to more than 700 spaces if the downtown master plan and its associated uptick in development come to fruition.
Combining a parking structure with a new City Hall will cost approximately $11.5 million, and the project would likely be funded by tax-increment finance funds.
Before the project designs can commence, a Business Improvement District must be established, a step requiring the consent of 60 percent of business property owners in the affected area.
“There is a lot that we are still just researching,” City Manager Chuck Stearns said. “It may still take a while, but this gives us some more direction.”
A steering committee will also reconvene and begin working on a contract for architectural proposals, Stearns said, but not until after the Business Improvement District is established.
Many questions remain unanswered, including how far the district’s radius will extend. That depends on which businesses will benefit most from the parking structure, Stearns said. It may result in a multi-tier system in which some businesses pay more than others.
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