When this sleepy community fringing Glacier National Park’s west entrance awoke July 1 to usher in one of the busiest weekends of the year, news of a titanic change of hands within its quaint, family-owned business district had already spread like wildfire.
Bill Lundgren, whose family purchased the West Glacier Mercantile Company in 1946, had just sold the lion’s share of the town site’s businesses to Glacier Park Inc., a subsidiary of the publicly traded Viad Corp., of Arizona, which, until losing its long-standing contract last year, had been the principal concessioner inside the park’s borders for 32 years, running the lodging and retail operations, as well as food and beverage services and the iconic Red Bus tours.
Last year, GPI lost its contract with the National Park Service after it was outbid by a larger firm called Xanterra Parks and Resorts. And while it has retained its holdings outside the park, it dealt a major blow to the company’s portfolio.
“It broke my heart when we lost the concessions contract,” GPI President Cindy Ognjanov said. “It broke my heart because we are a family here. Even though we are a corporate entity, we are a family.”
The sale by the Lundgren family buoyed GPI’s future, giving it ownership of the West Glacier Mercantile, the West Glacier Motel and Cabins, the West Glacier Gift Shop, the West Glacier Restaurant, the West Glacier Bar (known locally as “Freda’s”) and about 200 acres of land, most of it undeveloped, in and around the small community.
The sale also includes nearly 4 acres of inholding within Glacier National Park, in the form of Apgar Village Lodge and the Cedar Tree Gift Shop, as well as staff housing units in both Apgar and West Glacier.
But to many locals, the transaction signaled uncertain change for a community that has done everything it can to avoid the boomtown development flanking its boundaries, as well as that of other national parks.
Rumors of the deal had swirled around the close-knit village for months, and in the days before the deal was confirmed, even before the ink was dry on the contract, the outcry rose to a fever pitch. With the deal confirmed, some local residents greeted the announcement with paralyzing dismay, incredulous that their imperishable community might be subject to sudden change at the hands of a corporation beholden to a bottom line of profit, not preservation.
A social media campaign sprang up on Facebook, and as rumors of the sale grew a newly created page called “Save Historic West Glacier Village” began portending corporate doom for the quaint town site of West Glacier, which for nearly 70 years has gone relatively unchanged.
One longtime resident, Josh Pauley, expressed his disappointment in the Lundgren family, posting that they were “betraying the trust of their neighbors and sacrificing the soul of the town.”
A petition to place the area on the National Register of Historic Places began circulating, and allegations of secret, backchannel dealings between GPI and the Lundgrens rankled locals who say they might have cobbled together the money to continue the area’s local ownership, conveying the inviolable sanctity of West Glacier to its residents and employees.
It also revealed a palpable fear of change among its residents – a fear that top GPI officials say is unfounded.
“We have no plans to change the look or the feel of West Glacier,” Ognjanov said. “We are very excited to continue the relationship with the Glacier community that we’ve maintained for 32 years.”
The holdings have been family owned since 1946, when the Lundgren family and Dave Thompson purchased the West Glacier Mercantile Company, which consisted of the main buildings in West Glacier. And while several other structures have been added over time, the character and charm of a scenic mountain village still remains.
Operating partners Bill Lundgren, Rob Lundgren and Kathy Lundgren – all cousins – have been the principal owners since buying the properties from Bill’s father, Dan Lundgren (whose father Dan Sr. owned it before him), and have gone to great lengths to preserve West Glacier as it is and was. Bill Lundgren said the family’s decision to sell the business to GPI was born of a confidence in the company’s ability and willingness to follow that family tradition.
“They have a lot of experience and a long record of historic preservation and restoration of all their facilities,” he said. “We felt the successor needed to be a company that had the resources and the experience and all the many facets of business know-how. We just thought that it was a good fit.”
“I think their declaration is they don’t want to change a thing. They don’t want West Glacier to change,” he added.
Bill Thompson, the grandson of Dave Thompson, has been active on the Facebook page, and responded to Pauley’s post by defending the Lundgren family’s decades-long stewardship of West Glacier.
“My grandfather Dave Thompson lived and worked in West Glacier for the majority of his life, my father, aunts and uncles were all raised there as well as me and my siblings and cousins. I’m sure every one of us is curious and nervous about what changes might happen. But to blame any of the Lundgrens for making what I’m positive was a very difficult decision is plain rude,” he wrote.
Nancy Hildebrandt, the postmaster at the Lake McDonald Post Office, lives just outside of West Glacier. She and others say they are concerned that a large hotel, dormitories to house seasonal workers or other development could occur on the undeveloped parcels in West Glacier Village.
“It will no longer be the little town of West Glacier. That died when they sold it,” she said.
Gail Pauley, whose family has lived in the town for 25 years, said the Lundgrens have not only been close friends and neighbors, but trusted stewards of the community.
Indeed, in 1987, the West Glacier Mercantile Company was awarded a Special Commendation from the U.S. Department of the Interior for “sheltering and protecting the West Entrance of Glacier National Park from inappropriate development” and for maintaining the village’s historic character.
“So the sale of our town and adjacent lands to a large out-of-state corporation, and the secrecy surrounding that sale, has left us with a great deal of anxiety on what our future holds,” Pauley said. “Another huge concern is that GPI has not disclosed what they plan to do with the vast undeveloped tracts of land that were included in the sale. One large tract is located along River Bend Drive, between West Glacier townsite and Glacier View Golf Course. This pristine area is home to elk, bear, deer, and countless other wildlife. It is imperative that every effort be made to protect this area from being developed for corporate gain.”
Other current and former stakeholders aren’t so sure that concerns over dramatic development plans are warranted.
Donna Brewster grew up in Apgar, just up the road from West Glacier, where she attended the one-room schoolhouse while her father, Eddie Brewster, ran the grocery store that today is known as Eddie’s Café and Gifts.
Brewster and her husband, Jerry Larsen, eventually took over the store and ran it for 30 years before selling it and retiring. While she acknowledges the village communities of Apgar and West Glacier have undergone some change through the years, she doubts GPI will alter the area’s historic character.
“I can’t see them changing things,” she said. “In my family there’s three generations of park service employees. We still talk about what a privilege and a blessing it was to grow up there and be free and wild. We didn’t have to worry about anything. I would hate to see it change, but it already has. It used to be a hidden secret, but not anymore. There’s more tourism, more people traveling through and Glacier is becoming better known.”
GPI also operates two large hotels just outside the park, St. Mary Lodge and Glacier Park Lodge, and one inside neighboring Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, the Prince of Wales Hotel.
Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish is also a GPI property, and Ognjanov points to those holdings as evidence that the company is committed not only to running a successful business, but also to preserving the aesthetic that has charmed visitors for more than a century.
“All you have to do is look at Glacier Park Lodge, which is 101 years old, and see that we have been very careful to maintain the historical integrity,” she said. “Look at the Prince of Wales. This is part of who we are.”
Herb Mains has lived in West Glacier since 1946, when his father returned from the Army and began working for Dave Thompson in the grocery store. His home sits adjacent to the 18th hole of the Glacier View Golf Course, the one with the pumpkin-orange trimming, and he said the concern of locals worried about change is merited because of their deep love of the place.
“One of the things we all enjoy about living here is that things remain simple and the same. Nothing appreciably has changed,” he said. “I have heard that GPI wants to continue to maintain the business facilities pretty much as they are. I have nothing against GPI and I am hoping that they will in turn continue to maintain the properties pretty much the way they are.”
He continued: “But let’s face it. GPI is the new kid on the block, so they are going to be scrutinized pretty carefully. But within the park they have been good stewards far as the facilities that they have controlled and I am under the opinion that they are worthy of a chance. I hope that they will continue to be good stewards and not make any major changes, but you never know until the fat lady sings. And then it’s already over.”
Rob Lundgren’s wife, Nancy Lundgren, said the sale made her anxious.
“I’m the outlaw of the family, the black sheep, and I just want to see this place preserved,” she said. “I think it hurts the community because they’re selling the soul of West Glacier. They sold out, just like everyone else.”
Ognjanov promised that the change is “good for the company, and it’s good for the community.”
GPI is retaining all 150 employees in West Glacier, she said, and the only concern she heard was whether or not they’ll have to trim their beards or wear uniforms.
“People will not see any major changes,” she said. “We want to live with the business community and the folks for a while and get to understand what it’s all about. At this moment there are zero plans to make any changes.”
Speaking to the concern the sale has raised among locals, Bill Lundgren said he’d be nervous if the news hadn’t raised alarums.
“Sometimes change can be frightening. We have received expressions of concern and expressions of support, and I think it’s great because that means people care about this little community,” Lundgren said.
Editor’s Note: The print edition of this story went to print Monday, before Bill Lundgren returned phone calls for an interview. The Beacon spoke with Lundgren after the print edition was delivered and distributed, and updated the article online to include his statements.
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