We have come a long way. And have a long way to go.
When I was a young boy, my grandparents took me and my two sisters on a summer road trip from our hometown in northern Wisconsin to my aunt’s place in southern California. Before that trip, my family’s meager means prevented us from venturing more than a few hours from my hometown. Vacations were not something us kids had come to expect.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the best part about the trip was spending all that time with my grandparents. Grandma grew up on a farm that was literally cut from the woods of northern Wisconsin. And Grampa was a gem. His sense of humor was drier than a martini. He filled the miles with stories of his days in Europe during World War II. Each time we crossed a state line, he repeated a phrase he learned in the Army: “We come a long way, and we got a long way to go.”
That, in a nutshell, is the Whitefish economy. Not too long ago, our economy was on life support. A lot of my friends were taking jobs in the oil fields and leaving their families back here. Others filed bankruptcy. Several have since been divorced. And finding anyone who was optimistic about their prospects was like finding a quarter dropped from Chair 1.
Since then, real estate prices in Whitefish have stabilized and construction permits are back to pre-2008 levels, according to real estate appraiser Jim Kelly’s 2012 report. On the employment front, you may recall the pleas from a few years ago for more and better paying jobs. Well, according to the latest information available from the US Census Bureau, unemployment in Whitefish is an estimated 4.8 percent. Compare this to Montana’s unemployment rate of approximately 5.6 percent and the US employment rate of over 7 percent. Approximately 32 percent of Whitefish jobs are in management, business, science and arts. Obviously, we are much more than a retirement and tourist community.
One of the more surprising statistics to some, including me, is the small percentage of Whitefish jobs in public administration. Only an estimated 3.8 percent of Whitefish jobs are in public administration. Montana’s rate is 6.1 percent, and the U.S. rate is 4.9 percent. Given the good news about Whitefish’s economy, our broad employment base and low unemployment, there is no doubt that an efficient government is better for our economy.
However, we have a long way to go. The Highway 93 South corridor needs attention. As our economy improves, it also changes and our City Council needs to get ahead of that change. Our proposed city budget has funds for a corridor study to address this issue, a study that was supported by a diverse group of business owners from both downtown and Highway 93 South. Investors and business owners deserve the certainty of updated planning in this important entrance to our town. It’s time we made it a priority.
As we look back on the challenges we faced in recent years and look ahead to an optimistic future, we should keep in mind that, even though we come a long way, we still got a long way to go.
Whitefish City Councilor
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