Learning to Work and Play Near Fire
Summer is the time when tourism-based businesses make hay while the sun shines and the visitors flow into Northwest Montana. But the extreme wildfire season in 2017 was a reminder that all these businesses are dependent on the whims of nature.
According to a survey conducted last fall by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, 78 percent of tourism businesses in Northwest Montana felt the effects of smoke and fire on their bottom line. Only 47 percent of tourism businesses across the state felt their business would increase in 2018.
Yet, despite the smoke and fire, visitation to the valley was strong, thanks largely to the popularity of Glacier Park. More than half of the tourism businesses in Glacier Country saw more visitors than in 2016, while 26 percent saw fewer and 22 percent saw the same. Many of the surveyed businesses also saw increased revenues in 2017 compared to 2016, with 34 percent experiencing more than 5 percent increases.
Farm Bill Legalizes Industrial Hemp Production
In 2014, the federal Farm Bill gave states the right to develop research pilot programs into the growth, cultivation, and marketing of industrial hemp. Montana started one such program, and by 2017, 14 certified growers had 550 acres of hemp. In 2018, there were 60 certified growers on nearly 13,000 acres, many celebrating their first crops.
Joe Arnone, a hemp farmer in the Flathead, believes Montana could have hundreds of thousands of acres of hemp, transforming the agricultural economy here. The plant is extremely versatile, and can be used for flour and other grain products, cosmetics, alcoholic beverages, industrial applications such as lubricants, animal bedding, building materials, textile products, and bio-composite materials.
The 2018 Farm Bill, signed into law Dec. 20, legalizes the production of industrial hemp in America.
Bitcoin Under the Big Sky
Over the past several years, Northwest U.S. regional electric utilities have been inundated with requests for service from power-hungry cryptocurrency processing loads. The requests for service started in the Mid-Columbia Basin of central Washington — particularly in Chelan and Walla Walla counties — and have since spread throughout the Pacific Northwest, recently extending into this far-flung corner of Montana, where a virtual gold rush is underway.
Electric utilities in the Northwest boast some of the cheapest electricity rates in the nation, due in large part to the low cost of hydropower and its dense network of dams, making the region an attractive location for bitcoin-mining facilities.
“Electric utilities outside of Washington are now seeing an increase in the number of service requests from cryptocurrency processing loads,” Flathead Electric Cooperative General Manager Mark Johnson said. “Flathead Electric is no exception.”
Job Openings Plague Employers…
The spring was a prime market for those seeking employment or a career change.
“We currently have 825 jobs posted,” said Laura Gardner, manager at the Kalispell Job Service. “I think that’s almost 100 more than last week when I looked at it.”
The job openings range across the board, from the medical field to tourism-based businesses, seeking skilled and unskilled labor. The county hit 100,000 in population for the first time the previous year, and seasonal jobs continued to be a mainstay of the Flathead economy.
Montana’s unemployment rate fell below 4 percent in July, and in October the United States added 250,000 jobs, marking the fastest growth since 2009. Still, several businesses in the Flathead described hiring woes, with some even closing for a day because of staffing shortages.
…Affordable Housing Plagues Workers
Partly as a way to handle the employment crisis, 2018 was a year for discussions and action on affordable housing.
According to a workforce housing needs assessment released in December 2016, middle-income, working-class Whitefish residents have limited options when it comes to finding comfortable, cost-effective living arrangements, a problem that is displacing locals and forcing them to live outside their chosen community — 56 percent of Whitefish’s workforce lives in neighboring communities, 34 percent of whom would prefer to live in Whitefish.
Seasonal workers face a scarce rental inventory, while homeownership remains out of reach for young professionals looking to enter an outsized market that towers above the average household income.
In early summer, the Whitefish City Council approved affordable housing units, and the city was awarded $6.75 million in federal tax credits in November to help it grow affordable housing options and inventory.
Kalispell continues to grow at a rapid rate, with development shifting westward as more people seek affordable housing. Within a one-month span in May and June, the Kalispell City Council approved two separate developments, located kitty corner from each other on Three Mile, proposing to build a combined 551 housing units across 200 acres. Those came on the heels of the March approval of a 324-unit apartment complex off Two Mile Drive.
Planes, RVs, and Automobiles
Summer is the busiest time of year for the Flathead Valley and surrounding areas, due to the incredible magnetism of the landscape and the welcoming and laidback ethos of mountain culture.
Glacier Park International Airport posted the highest passenger numbers in its history, hotel occupancy rates bustled and new hotels come online each year. But many visitors get here via modes of transportation other than planes, and stay in campgrounds or RV parks, a trend showing high demand for these kinds of overnight stays.
Since 2008, Flathead County has approved multiple RV park projects on its zoned land, adding at least 143 spaces.
On July 10, the Kalispell Planning Board approved a proposal for a new RV park south of town on U.S. Highway 93 that would add 330 RV spaces to valley on 50 acres. The project, called Montana Basecamp, would be the first RV park for Kalispell.
And earlier this year in May, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality approved the environmental assessment for water and wastewater facilities at a proposed RV park near Glacier Park’s west entrance. This project proposes building a campground with space for more than 100 RVs and 25 cabins on 178 acres just west of the West Glacier Village.
Wildfire Affects Glacier’s Visitation Numbers
In August, nearly 100,000 acres were closed in Glacier due to fire, along with 141.8 miles of trail and 47 miles of road. This summer is the third time in four years that the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road has been closed for a significant amount of time because of wildfire.
Park spokesperson Lauren Alley said while fires have likely depressed visitation overall it has actually increased traffic in some areas as visitors have fewer places to go. Two Medicine and Many Glacier have become especially busy in recent weeks as visitors look for places outside of the smoke-choked west side of the park.
Dylan Boyle, executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he has fielded numerous calls from visitors asking if they should cancel their visit. Boyle tells them that while the fires are impacting part of the park, there are still other things to do in Northwest Montana.
Glacier Rail Park Opens
In October, local officials hammered down 10 golden spikes to celebrate the completion of the new $12.2 million Glacier Rail Park in Evergreen.
The completion of the rail park and eventual relocation of CHS Kalispell’s grain elevator and Northwest Drywall will allow for the removal of two miles of railroad track in downtown Kalispell, clearing the way for a new trail and development.
Construction began on the Glacier Rail Park in August 2017 and since then contractors have been busy building roads, railroad track, and water and sewer systems. CHS Kalispell broke ground on its new facility, and construction has began on Northwest Drywall’s new warehouse. If everything goes according to plan, both companies will be operating out of the 44-acre rail park. Once that happens, the rails in downtown Kalispell will be abandoned and removed.
How the Outdoor Economy Feeds Us
In December, Whitefish hosted the first-ever Business of Outdoor Recreation Summit, a gathering in Whitefish of more than 250 attendees and speakers organized by the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation to discuss the value of outdoors to businesses and communities on local landscapes.
During a series of wide-ranging panel discussions and free-form conversations at the summit, experts in the field tallied the value and currency of outdoor recreation in dollar signs and quality of life, infrastructure improvements and wildlife conservation.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s most recent figures, outdoor recreation is now the largest sector of Montana’s economy, generating more than $7 billion per year in consumer spending and supporting over 70,000 jobs that pay more than $2 billion worth of wages.