WHITEFISH – On Jan. 3, 2012, moments after taking his oath of office as mayor of Whitefish, the city’s top political post, John Muhlfeld found himself at the center of a deadlocked city council grappling with an expensive and sharply divided community development project.
It was the newly assembled government body’s first meeting of the year following an election season characterized by rancor and political unrest, and the meeting would drag on deep into the winter night. The six-person council had quickly reached an impasse over whether or not to indefinitely table a proposal to award as much as $2.5 million of the city’s tax increment finance dollars, or TIF, toward construction and renovation of the badly outmoded Whitefish High School.
A slate of councilors was reluctant to recommend the use of TIF funds, and asked for additional time and information.
With little hesitation, Muhlfeld cast a tie-breaking vote that ultimately nudged the politicized issue forward, a move manifested today in the $19 million Whitefish High School Building Project, scheduled to be complete during the 2014 school year.
That January night, Muhlfeld’s vote meant preventing a delay he believes would have crushed the proposal’s momentum just three months before voters were to consider passing a bond to finance the project. Rather than go home, the council hashed out a dispute that had become increasingly divided and, shortly after 11 p.m., arrived at a unanimous vote approving the use of TIF funds for the project, agreeing that investing in education was a critical tool for economic development, which is part of the criteria for allocating the TIF moneys.
“He’s a good peacemaker. He has a talent at making sure everyone gets to the table,” former Whitefish Mayor Andy Feury said. “He has the community’s best interest in mind and he’s not guided by political dogma. That makes him a strong and fair leader.”
The $2.5 million contribution from the city accounts for about 13 percent of the total estimated project cost, and the vote demonstrated that redevelopment of the high school facilities was a top priority for the city. The TIF money, along with funds derived from other sources, including state grants and matching funds, as well as private fundraising, enabled the school board to lower the amount it would seek from the public.
Two months later, Whitefish voters overwhelmingly supported the project by passing a $14 million bond, which had failed twice before when it appeared on the ballot with higher price tags.
“That was a fairly monumental decision. If that vote hadn’t gone the way it did I don’t know that we would have had the community momentum and support to pass the $14 million bond,” Muhlfeld said in a recent interview, recalling his first mayoral vote as contentious and significant straight out of the gate.
Ultimately, he said, it was the right decision for the community.
That night, Muhlfeld’s leadership helped usher in a large-scale community development project that he believes will benefit the town for decades.
“A great community deserves a great school,” he said. “The first thing a family looks at when moving to a community is the school district. From an economic development standpoint, I think having a strong and technologically advanced high school is right in line with our economic objectives at the city level.”
Two weeks later, the council again came together and unanimously approved amendments to the Critical Areas Ordinance, now referred to as the Water Quality Protection Ordinance. The aim of the amendment was to address concerns by members of the real estate and development community, who complained that the application process was too burdensome and costly, while still maintaining the primary purpose of the regulation – to protect the quality of water in Whitefish’s lakes and rivers.
Both issues represent a curious and often confounding question – how do city leaders manage Whitefish’s rapid growth while maintaining the character that makes the community attractive and unique?
While the quandary is not new, it is more relevant now than it has been in more than a decade, and Muhlfeld believes growth and development, particularly along the highway corridor, are not mutually exclusive to safeguarding Whitefish’s downtown character from blight.
“It’s that kind of synergy that I want to foster. We need to break down the mentality that it’s downtown versus the highway corridor,” he said.
Nowhere is that mentality more evident than in the embattled Whitefish planning “doughnut” over jurisdiction of the two-mile belt girding the city’s outer edge. A court decision last month returned authority of the doughnut to Flathead County, and the Whitefish City Council voted to appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court, the most recent twist in an issue that has divided Whitefish for a dozen years.
City managers believe Whitefish should retain planning and zoning authority over the doughnut, even though doughnut residents subject to city regulations cannot participate in local government elections.
Muhlfeld believes that a compromise is possible, but recognizes that a segment of the community feels disenfranchised, and said addressing their concerns is a pressing matter.
As an example, Muhlfeld pointed to the council’s prioritization of a corridor study along the U.S. Highway 93 South business corridor, which will identify types of uses and economic opportunities along the thoroughfare.
“We’re looking at what types of uses are compatible to that corridor given the growth patterns that we have experienced and will experience,” he said. “With that study in place, the city will be in a better position to help guide development for that area.”
Some of that will require addressing antiquated zoning regulations to promote economic development, he said.
Twenty months after Muhlfeld’s first vote as mayor, development in Whitefish has returned to 2006 levels and, with construction activity having steadily risen for three years, the town is poised for a boom that echoes the robust building climate the town enjoyed more than 10 years ago.
In addition to the major reconstruction of the Whitefish High School, the new North Valley Food Bank is getting new digs on Flathead Avenue near the Wave Aquatic and Fitness Center, which is also expanding with a 9,200 square-foot addition.
In April, crews broke ground on an expansion at North Valley Hospital that will house surgical services.
A host of downtown commercial projects are also on the horizon, including a multi-story development at the vacant corner of Baker Avenue and Second Street across from City Hall that would include commercial retail on the ground level and condos or apartments above, and a boutique hotel proposed at the corner of Third Street and Central Avenue in downtown Whitefish by the owners of The Lodge at Whitefish Lake.
A feasibility study is underway for a $70 million upscale resort that would feature a 150-room hotel, indoor and outdoor pools, a water park, skating rink, trails and retail shopping plaza.
Last year the resort town saw a 28 percent increase in new dwelling units over 2011 and had the highest number of remodeling projects in a decade. The 2012 total construction valuation fell just short of the total of the previous three years combined, and the highest since 2006.
In July, the Whitefish City-County Planning Board approved a housing project on East Second Street after developers reconfigured the site plan for a third time. The 143-unit proposal will go before the city council at its Aug. 19 meeting.
The growth is reflected in other market indicators, too, like the town’s resort tax, which has been growing at a rate of about 10 percent per year.
“I think the city is positioned similarly to how it was in the late 90s and early 2000s when the first development cycle came through, and I think we are at that cusp right now where we are going to see a lot of building activity,” Muhlfeld said. “We’re positioned well thanks to the good planning we have done through the years to accommodate that growth. At the same time, it’s going to continue to be a challenge to preserve the character of the community. We are going to see more growth. It’s coming.”
At a Whitefish City Council meeting in May, after nearly four hours of public comment and debate, Muhlfeld cast another deciding vote to approve designs for a new City Hall and an attached parking garage, a structure that some residents viewed as at odds with Whitefish’s downtown core, while others recognized it as necessary.
In the eight years since the 40-year-old Muhlfeld took office as a city councilor, many of the policies and initiatives designed to preserve the unique character of Whitefish have been amended to accommodate the city’s growth. There have been updates to the growth policy and changes to zoning regulations, including character-based zoning like the dark skies initiative and the sign ordinance, both of which required nearly three years of public comment.
Recognizing that some businesses were chafing under the constraints, the previous city council made four revisions to the sign ordinance to foster a business friendly regulatory environment. Other guiding documents that are broader and more visionary, such as the downtown master plan, see fewer revisions, but last year the council voted to refresh the plan.
“In my opinion the majority of the community desires character-based ordinances, but all of these documents are living documents and from time to time we have to do basic housekeeping,” he said.
Muhlfeld cofounded and serves as president of a wetland and river restoration company called River Design Group, which was recently named one of Outside magazine’s 50 best places to work for the fourth straight year.
His vision of a growing Whitefish includes open spaces and public land access, a unique city center, as well as responsible development on the U.S. Highway 93 South corridor.
“The current city staff has a vision for how Whitefish can grow while still distinguishing ourselves from the rest of the Flathead Valley,” he said. “Whitefish is unique.”
Muhlfeld says he takes care not to polarize segments of the community, something he’s particularly sensitive to as the moderate city council prepares for a pendulum shift to the left.
The terms of current councilors Chris Hyatt, Phil Mitchell and Bill Kahle are ending this year and none are planning to run for re-election.
“It will be very important for this new council to make sure folks don’t feel they are disenfranchised or don’t have a seat at the table,” he said. “They need to be made to feel that their voices are heard.”
Feury, who stepped down as mayor in 2007 after nearly eight years in the position, and has announced that he will run for one of the three open council seats, said the mayor’s job is “more global” than that of a councilor, and it’s important to set political ideology aside.
“In small town politics there is no room for ideology,” Feury said. “You have to keep the bigger broader picture in view. That is the mayor’s job. He is sort of the chief philosophical truth bearer.”
When Muhlfeld was appointed to the Whitefish Lake and Lakeshore Protection Committee, the former mayor recalls immediately recognizing his born leadership.
“I knew right away that this guy has it. He’s got all the skills, all the tools, and he is going to be a great leader in this community,” Feury said. “He’s extremely bright and he has the rare ability to understand and argue every issue from all five sides. That is key to making good decisions and having a community that supports you whether they agree with you or not.”
“I think he is going to be one of the best mayors this community has ever seen,” Feury added. “He’s a great guy and he does it all for the right reasons.”
Most recently, Muhlfeld has offered strong support to a major land conservation deal that would permanently protect more than 3,000 acres of working forestlands in Haskill Basin. Under the proposed deal, the property’s development rights, owned by F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co., would be purchased by the Trust for Public Lands.
As Whitefish grows and economic development increases, Muhlfeld said projects like the Haskill deal need be part of the conversation, too.
And while the divisiveness between the downtown and Highway 93 corridors is certain to continue as business owners on the outskirts of town feel the city ignores their needs in favor of the downtown core, Muhlfeld says the two interests are not mutually exclusive.
“As mayor I’m really operating at the 10,000-foot level, looking out for the greater good of the community and trying to understand where we want to head in five or 10 years and how we get there,” he said. “It has been an honor to serve the community that I have lived in now for nearly 30 years and I would like to keep on contributing in any way that I can to continue making Whitefish a great place.”
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