WEST GLACIER – Until recently, quantifying the worth of West Glacier’s quaint business district meant calling it priceless, the experience of strolling through this tiny oasis fringing Glacier National Park difficult to put into words.
Not so any more.
But even with the $17 million sale of West Glacier’s business properties by the Lundgren family to Glacier Park, Inc. on July 1 – a price tag disclosed in corporate Security Exchange Commission filings by GPI’s parent company, Viad Corp. – owner Bill Lundgren said the deal would not compromise the sanctity of the community and its historic ties to Glacier National Park.
Lundgren and his cousins were the principal owners of the 32-room West Glacier Motel and Cabins, the West Glacier Restaurant and Bar (known locally as Freda’s), the West Glacier Mercantile, the West Glacier Gift Shop and other guest services, including a gas station.
The sale also included 3.8 acres of inholdings within Glacier National Park in Apgar – the Apgar Village Lodge, the Cedar Tree Gift Shop and staff housing units in Apgar and West Glacier.
And while the deal raised concern among locals untrusting of corporations, and frustrated over what some referred to as “secret negotiations,” Bill Lundgren said the family selected GPI because of the company’s long history with Glacier National Park and its connection to the area.
“They have a lot of experience and a long track record of historic preservation and restoration of the facilities,” Lundgren said. “There have been other expressions of interest through the years. We were flattered but the time was not right. Now there is the recognition that it is time. I think we all recognize that.”
The purchase price was $16 million in cash, subject to certain adjustments. The Company also purchased inventory necessary for the operation of the purchased business, including retail, food and beverage and gas station inventory, for $1 million, subject to certain adjustments.
The properties are situated on approximately 200 acres at the west entrance of Glacier National Park, and the sale of the land to GPI was perhaps the most alarming element of the deal for local residents who worry about development.
Jim Clarke, a seasonal resident of West Glacier for 28 years, said he was dismayed that locals weren’t better apprised of the negotiations, and worried that the “pristine” acreage would become the site of condos or a hotel.
“Up until now the decisions have been made in the dark, and that raises the anxiety of a lot of people,” he said. “Our kids grew up here and we have great affection for this place. We also have a lot of respect for the Lundgren family, so this isn’t like we’re upset with them. But having said that we’re concerned because I’ve seen what big corporations have done to national parks like Estes and the Great Smoky Mountains.”
Clarke recalled how Ev Lundgren, who joined his father after World War II in purchasing the West Glacier businesses, set up bird houses on the undeveloped land and enjoyed strolling through the forests.
“That was the kind of guy he was. A true conservationist,” he said. “Maybe it’s going to be alright. We hope so.”
Rumors of the deal had inundated the close-knit village for months, and in the days before the deal was confirmed, the outcry, uninformed as it was, rose to a fever pitch.
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 and its surrounding land, which for nearly 70 years has gone relatively unchanged.
“We basically did nothing with the land for 70 years,” Bill Lundgren said, adding that planning and zoning restrictions adopted in the Middle Canyon Plan still apply to any development.
“I think their declaration is they don’t want to change a thing,” he said of GPI. “They don’t want West Glacier to change.”
Lundgren said preserving the character and integrity of West Glacier is as important to the family as anyone, and he has enjoyed being thought of as a “steward” and “caretaker” of the area.
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.
“Preservation is a big part of Glacier’s identity. It really is,” he said.
While Lundgren wouldn’t say if there were competing offers leading up to the sale to GPI, he said the family had received expressions of interest through the years. He wouldn’t have sold to GPI if he lacked the confidence in the company’s ability, resources and integrity.
GPI, a subsidiary of publicly traded Viad Corp., owns the St. Mary Lodge and Resort in St. Mary, Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier, Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish, Motel Lake McDonald in Glacier and the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park.
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.”
GPI is retaining all 150 employees in West Glacier, and Ognjanov said there are no plans to change the business holdings or adjacent land.
“This transaction represents an important addition to our Glacier Park business as it expands our share of rooms in the Glacier National Park area, making us the largest provider of overnight accommodations, food and beverage services and retail operations in that market,” Viad chairman, president and CEO Paul B. Dykstra said.
“The acquired assets are uniquely positioned at the heavily trafficked west entrance to the Park and inside the Park itself. We are committed to expanding our high-margin hospitality and recreational attractions portfolio.”