Whitefish Wrestles Over the Future of Downtown

Zoning debate raises questions about where outfitters and guiding businesses can operate

By Tristan Scott
Lakestream Fly Shop on Central Avenue in downtown Whitefish. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

A downtown fly-fishing shop owner’s request to allow his guides and outfitters to operate in Whitefish’s secondary business district has ignited a debate about the future of the city’s downtown core and its arterial corridors.

Justin Lawrence, the owner of Lakestream Fly Shop in downtown Whitefish, is attempting to move his business to a location along Spokane Avenue, most recently occupied by The Shak restaurant, in order to display boats and raft trailers, and otherwise accommodate his growing enterprise.

Lawrence said his current shop along the Central Avenue business district corridor has expanded to the point where there is no room for his business, or others like it, to thrive. He’s asking the city for a zoning text amendment to add recreation guides and outfitters as an allowed use in the WB-2 zone, whereas his current location is zoned WB-3.

Under city code, guiding and outfitting business are characterized as “personal services,” which are not listed as an allowed use in WB-2, so Lawrence is asking the city to change the language of the code.

But the request, which seems straightforward enough, transposed into an organ for a lively debate about how changing the city’s zoning regulations could result in unanticipated consequences — like an exodus of businesses from Whitefish’s city center, or the en masse arrival of large, branded “box stores” offering sporting goods and outfitting services, or the unraveling of the city’s carefully crafted zoning rules.

“This is a very challenging one for me for all kinds of reasons,” councilor Frank Sweeney said after the lengthy public comment period concluded. “We shouldn’t be doing this for one business. But we do have a responsibility to do what we can to encourage and create the opportunity for growth of our local businesses. I am uncomfortable with the way that this is currently structured.”

The Whitefish City Council ultimately tabled the request until its Aug. 15 meeting, and asked planning staff to draft a proposal that would authorize guiding and outfitting services as a conditional use in the WB-2 zone, meaning an individual business would have to obtain a permit from the city to operate.

That may appease residents who opposed Lawrence’s request for a text amendment, which would apply to the entire zone as opposed to specific businesses on a case-by-case basis.

Chris Schustrom, a board member of the Heart of Whitefish organization, said the vibrant downtown retail core has finally recovered from 30 years ago, when many owner-operated businesses pursued less expensive leases in the business corridor south of downtown.

Schustrom said the zoning in place today creates a foundation for well-planned efficient growth and protects downtown retail interests. The efforts to build that foundation culminated in 2011, after 19 stakeholders spent three years creating the WB-2 Stakeholder Agreement, which laid out various non-conforming uses in the zone.

Those non-conforming uses, Schustrom argued, should remain intact.

“If this is approved it would apply to the entire zone, and while this fly shop is a great owner-operated business, it could allow [a chain store] to come in and build a 14,999 square-foot building and offer trained recreational guides and outfitters and they could have over 4,000 square feet of retail space,” Schustrom said. “It would basically be very similar to what happened to when the Mountain Mall was approved in the ‘80s and two dozen downtown business relocated because there was inexpensive, unlimited retail space. And they were basically swallowed whole. None of them remain.”

Lawrence’s request also received strong support from numerous community members, who touted the 30-year-old business as an economic engine for the city.

According to Lawrence, the shop supports 27 independent contractors and guides and draws 2,200 visitors annually to fish in the area.

“These customers stay in our hotels and rentals, eat in our restaurants and bars and spend their dollars in our shops,” he said. “To not allow a business like this to exist and grow in our town because of an oversight in zoning regulations would affect all of us that do business in the town. It would be a great loss for our mountain town and community.”

Planning Director Dave Taylor said uses can change over time, and it’s clear that downtown Whitefish isn’t equipped to accommodate an expanding outfitting business like Lawrence’s.

“The purpose of this use seems to fit with the intent of the WB-2 zone and the WB-2 zone seems like the best location,” Taylor said.