Fog of Growth

Calling for civility and compromise as the Flathead figures out solutions to rapid growth

By Mike Jopek

I stopped by my neighbor’s house to talk with my favorite retired neurosurgeon. I went over specifically to ask him what I should write about today. Jim, in his tired voice, flatly said that I should write about Whitefish and the limits of growth.

That’s an impossible topic, as our pro growth mentality is seemingly at odds with preserving a bit of that old town feeling for the resort community.

Yet that’s Jim’s point. If locals can’t talk about impossibly difficult topics, how will we all prosper? No one but the most entrenched federal politician is minutely happy with the current level of discourse and basic lack of civility toward our fellow humans on almost every issue.

In Jim’s words, we are going to have to get the most fanatical and the most fervent talking if we want solutions. It’s easy to be entrenched. We’ll have to strive in order to succeed.

Over my lifetime in Whitefish I have served on multiple local boards that deal with issues like planning, housing, conservation and recreation. I’ve served years in Helena and attended plenty of local government meetings.

I’ve often noted that the job of lobbyists, be they left or right in political persuasion, is not to compromise. They advocate their position, sometimes with hot lofty rhetoric and sometimes over thick steaks and whisky. But it’s mainly no compromise.

The job of serving in politics, to be a politician and a part of the governing, is to compromise. We see it every day as we travel through town or in news about legislation that became law.

Late in the ‘80s, town had a distinctively different feel. People were just as friendly, but the pace was slower. Maybe I was just younger. Maybe I was less tired, more understanding. Or, maybe I was just new to town having left that pace back on the East Coast.

Many say it’s the frantic pace to grow that makes people feel uneasy. Yet that pace keeps many construction jobs humming. It’s good work and decent pay for many.

That pace of growth is also the key to understanding why real property values have skyrocketed. It’s the valuations portion of property taxes that are the underemphasized legislative issue facing homeowners and downtown business owners alike.

It’s July and Whitefish doesn’t get much more busy. There are people everywhere, enjoying our great way of life. Luckily, Whitefish city leaders have been proactive in keeping access to our public lands and our waterways mostly open.

Much traditional access had been lost over the decades to private development. Yet the public network of trails and thousands of acres of permanent conservation keep recreation open for this generation as well as the next.

Whitefish has been doing a lot of growing up. The multi-stories popping up around town are big new additions. It’s another boom cycle for the city, with no end in sight as Whitefish embraces its resort town fate.

The Flathead is building hundreds of new hotel rooms to accommodate millions of tourist who spend good money in our great towns. Every public service from police to parks, from roadways to waste water treatment plants must be built to maximum occupancy standards.

There are a lot of difficult decisions ahead. Mostly, we need a peaceful way forward for all.

As Jim ate a handful of raspberries, he said that society and people must do right and seek justice. That reminded me of a former legislative colleague who routinely prompted me, “If you don’t believe in justice, what do you believe in?”

Whitefish, like all towns of the Flathead, has much work ahead in order to keep pace with its latest fog of growth. It’ll take all of us to find the way forward.

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