Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld recalls moving to Whitefish 25 years ago and encountering a sleepy mountain town with scant development along the corridors radiating from the city center.
Much has changed in the ensuing years, but even then city officials were preparing for the community’s inevitable growth, identifying affordable housing, tourism, water quality, and maintaining the town’s authentic character as priorities looking toward the future.
That prescience from community leaders a quarter-century ago is coming to bear as the current generation of leaders tackles a suite of challenges head on.
“We are a much different community today,” Muhlfeld told an audience gathered last week for the annual “State of the City” presentation. “With a population of 6,500 full-time residents, we have the complexities of a large city. Any time you’re dealing with an annual population of 6,000 or 7,000 people that quickly escalates to 20,000 or 25,000 visitors and residents alike in the summer months, it presents challenges.”
City staff and elected officials have been working in earnest to identify and address those challenges, Mulhfeld said, and he along with Whitefish City Manager Adam Hammatt explained the mechanisms in place to tackle them head on.
The top issues facing the community are not surprising to those who live in Whitefish year round — growth and sustainability; tourism; taxes and affordability; water quality and open space; affordable housing; and transportation and infrastructure.
According to Whitefish population growth estimates, which are based on a 2.5 percent annual growth rate, Whitefish will be home to more than 8,000 residents by 2025, and more than 12,000 by 2040.
To accommodate that growth, Muhlfeld said Whitefish has “a clear vision of how the community will grow.”
“We all know that we are growing,” he said. “In addition to the seasonal influx in population related to second home owners we are also seeing steady increases in full-time residence. With a 2.5 percent annual growth rate, we’re expecting to see a 50 percent increase in population by 2035. Of course that is right around the corner. And one issue we are not naïve to is that we have issues related to tourism growth.”
To that end, the city is working to align visitors’ needs with those of Whitefish residents for whom the respect of natural and cultural resources is paramount. The city has partnered with the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau to establish a strategic vision that includes a long-term tourism plan to “ensure our community-based economic development is beneficial to all” while continuing to market Whitefish as a premier authentic mountain town.
“These visitors contribute substantially to the local resort tax, which is why we were able to rebate over $1.2 million in property taxes back to residents,” Muhlfeld said. “They eat in our restaurants, they drink in our bars, they shop in our shops, and they stay in our hotels.”
They also add pressure to the city’s roads and open spaces, creating congestion and requiring forward-thinking solutions.
In addition to Whitefish’s quaint downtown core, its myriad open spaces serve as an allure to visitors and locals alike, and the community’s commitment to conservation and placing caps on development has led to the preservation of nearly 19,000 acres of forested working lands in and around Whitefish, both on Haskill Basin and Trumbull Creek through partnerships with Stoltze Land and Lumber Co., as well as a recent conservation easement north of Whitefish Lake on Weyerhaeuser properties.
“From my perspective, that is a significant piece of the economic puzzle for Whitefish,” Muhlfeld said. “We are quickly becoming undoubtedly a model nationally for how to blend conservation efforts with recreation. The facts are fairly staggering.”
As the Whitefish Trail system expands at a steady clip, it has resulted in more than $6 million in direct consumer spending and about 62 full-time jobs, according to a recent study.
But as Whitefish grows and the demographic shifts, it presents challenges for the local workforce, 52 percent of which live in outlying communities in Flathead County like Kalispell and Columbia Falls, and who in-commute to Whitefish.
“From our perspective that is unacceptable,” Muhlfeld said. “Our service workers, medical professionals, public safety personnel all deserve to have an opportunity to live where they work and we are committed to that effort.”
To address that challenge, the city has about 150 affordable units in the pipeline and has created the Strategic Housing Steering Committee to tackle the community’s affordable housing program, recently renamed the Whitefish Legacy Homes Program.
Hammatt, the city manager, said some projects are already underway, like converting a city-owned lot used for snow storage into affordable housing.
“I have made affordable housing my top priority as city manager,” Hammatt said. “These affordable housing initiatives aren’t easy. They are tough and they can be divisive at times.”
Through an agreement with Whitefish Affordable Housing Authority, Whitefish is in the process of adding 12 townhomes and about 22 apartments to its inventory of affordable housing.
Another project just north of downtown is using federal low-income housing tax credits to build 38 new apartments.
“I think we’re getting it right,” Hammatt said.
“The state of the city is strong,” Muhlfeld added.
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