A property in downtown Whitefish could be destined for a new identity as Fresh Life Church works to acquire three lots along Central Avenue for a proposed mixed-use building to house a church as well as retail and office space.
The church is looking to build a 10,810-square-foot building and is seeking approval of a conditional-use permit from the Whitefish Planning Board and City Council.
According to its application, Fresh Life Church bills the proposed project as a “better use of three city lots with infill style construction.” Fresh Life is currently in the midst of a similar infill project in downtown Kalispell, where construction is underway on a two-story building between a pair of historic buildings it owns on First Avenue East.
Since its establishment in Kalispell in 2007, Fresh Life Church has grown significantly in size and scope. The church, led by pastor Levi Lusko, who moved to the Flathead Valley from California and formed the church at 25, has acquired multiple properties in downtown and expanded to cities across Montana. Within only a few years, the church drew a regular local congregation of roughly 1,500 people.
As the congregation has continued to grow, so has Fresh Life’s real estate portfolio. The church moved its original headquarters from above the Overflowing Cup coffee bistro on Main Street into the Strand Theatre on Second Street East in 2007. The church purchased the theater in 2010 and that same year also bought the nearby Liberty Theatre and former First Avenue Café building next door to the Montana Building. The church also now leases space in the Montana Building.
There are two reasons Fresh Life must obtain a conditional-use permit from the city of Whitefish in order to build a new church — the proposed size exceeds the 7,500-square-foot building threshold defined in WB-3 zoning regulations that steer development in Whitefish’s Old Town Central District; and churches in that district cannot operate at ground level under current zoning requirements.
In order to comply with current zoning as well as the character of Whitefish’s downtown core, Fresh Life has proposed a split-level building with one floor situated below ground level and one above, according to Hilary Lindh, long-range planner with the Whitefish Planning Board. The application also proposes five retail spaces.
The proposed location of the new building is on three city lots, including the former location of Lakestream Fly Shop, which operated for years at 334 Central Ave. before moving to its current spot on Spokane Avenue. If its application is approved, Fresh Life would move the current building off-site, according to planning officials.
The location is near the historic First Presbyterian Church, which was built prior to current zoning regulations, and the Frank Lloyd Wright building.
The general business district does not include parking requirements, and the application states parking demand would only increase significantly during its Sunday services at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. The church estimates it will draw a congregation of about 150 people. Its Whitefish congregation currently gathers at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center.
Additionally, the building will accommodate a staff of between two and four employees during business hours Monday through Thursday, as well as part of the day Saturday, according to the application.
There are also no setback requirements in the general business district, and Lindh said architectural drawings show the ground-level retail spaces would abut the sidewalk, with no landscaping or screening. The building’s proposed dimensions would be 125 feet deep and 90 feet wide, including the 60-by-80-foot area designated for retail space.
A public hearing to consider the church and retail project will be held before the Whitefish Planning Board on Jan. 18 before the Whitefish City Council considers the application at its Feb. 19 meeting.
The public can provide comments and feedback by emailing Lindh at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling her at (406) 863-1254. Members of the public can also attend the planning board meeting and offer comments in real time.
As a nonprofit, churches do not pay property taxes.