Early Life on the Big Mountain

By Beacon Staff

Where a person lives says a lot about them. The majority of people live in cities or towns for the convenience of work, schools and shopping. Many people like waterfront living, which is very appealing, especially if you are into water activities. Living at a ski area is a whole different world. You obviously have to love snow and cooler weather. Having two to five feet of snow on my roof gives me comfort. Having neatly plowed snow banks and huge piles of snow around is beautiful in my eyes.

I grew up in Polson, where the snow would come in late November or early December and completely melt in January, come back again in February and completely melt again, with many small snowfalls throughout the winter that would last a day or two. Going to Whitefish where I saw two to four feet of snow always on the ground in town and going up on Big Mountain where there was snow in much greater amounts was like a dream come true.

In 1973, when I purchased a duplex on the Big Mountain, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The winters were great, with skiing right out the door. Working on the mountain as a ski instructor was all I had ever wanted. Then when spring came all the people were gone and amazingly in about 10 days all of the snow would melt. The change from winter to spring to summer was quick and dramatic. For many years, summer brought construction. New buildings came out of the ground in many locations. In 1977, I started my construction career by building a mountain chalet with five units. I paid $12,000 for the lot and built and furnished a 6,000-square-foot building for under $100,000. During those days, the Canadian exchange was favorable and Canada had discovered the great uncrowded skiing at Whitefish with an ability to stay close to the slopes. Most of the ski areas in Canada did not have on-slope accommodations. Demand for overnight rentals was high. The mountain would open on Thanksgiving and close mid-April. Many of the duplex and private homeowners on the mountain saw the opportunity to rent their properties when they were not using them. Occupancy was high and rental revenue was very good. Every summer during this period was an opportunity to build and learn the logistics of forming and managing condominium structures. The high demand for rentals with increasing rental rates made building and selling units economically feasible. Many guests became owners as they fell in love with the mountain. Many still own units on the mountain today.

Nothing remains the same. In 1984, the Canadian exchange exceeded 38 percent and the impact totally changed the rental picture. Occupancy dropped by more than 50 percent. Mortgage rates went through the roof. When building the Sherpa condominium, the interest rate was 18 percent. In 1977, I had built a five-unit condominium for around $100,000. In 1984, Sherpa, a 10-unit condominium, cost $1 million to build. The combination of the high building costs, high interest rates and a high exchange rate was keeping the Canadians away and made ownership of mountain property much different. It was no longer feasible to build and have the rental income offset the mortgage.

In today’s economy, the interest rates are much lower than they were in the 80s but building costs have continued to escalate. Homeowners buy mountain property these days, not for the rental return, but for the high quality of life it gives them. For those who can afford the luxury of having a home on the mountain, it is wonderful at any time of the year – scenic beauty, fresh air activities and no crowds. It is a great escape from the pressures of today’s world. Presently, there are so many activities to choose from: skiing, hiking, biking, sightseeing, huckleberry picking, boating, golfing. Because of the year-round demand in Whitefish and on the mountain, rental activity has also picked up.

The Canadians are still coming to Whitefish Mountain Resort and the rest of the U.S. has also discovered the unique beauty and appeal of the Whitefish area. Ownership of mountain property has gone through several transformations but still holds a special place in my heart. I enjoy sharing my mountain living experiences with newcomers to the area.

Jeff Fisher is a ski instructor, general contractor, property manager, RE/MAX of Whitefish agent, avid skier and sailor

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