A construction project that would have put a stranglehold on the north end of Whitefish’s downtown corridor during the busy summer months has been rescheduled to accommodate business owners who rely on peak visitation to remain solvent.
The 11th hour schedule change relieves business owners and downtown employees of a summer’s worth of heartburn, particularly as those most likely to be adversely affected by road closures, reduced parking and constricted delivery corridors — storefronts along Railway Street, Spokane Avenue and Central Avenue nearest to Depot Park — are also among the most nascent ventures in a district of downtown that already struggles to draw the same amount of foot traffic as Central Avenue.
Still, shifting the construction schedule at Depot Park from summer (June through September) to a mixed work regimen slated to begin next month, resume in the fall and continue next spring, will cost the city of Whitefish more in tax-increment finance dollars while effectively displacing the two-week Great Northwest Oktoberfest celebration, set to observe its 10th anniversary in Depot Park later this year.
After hearing an outpouring of concern from representatives of the downtown business district on April 15, city officials sided unanimously with the business interests and set forth on an expedited path to bid out the long-planned Depot Park construction project so the initial work is completed by July 1, just as visitors begin converging on Whitefish in full froth. The work will resume in late September.
“I appreciate the hard work staff has put into this project. It’s been a long time coming and it has been years in planning,” Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld said at the April 15 council meeting brimming with downtown business representatives, many of them concerned that they only recently learned of the summertime construction schedule. “Things sometimes can slip through the cracks and we sometimes do make mistakes. Perhaps we should have outreached more actively to the local businesses. I am very sympathetic to several of the businesses along Railway in particular because you are fledging businesses and you took substantial risk and trust that investing in Whitefish would be the right thing to do for your business and for the community.”
Kevin Gartland, executive director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, for whom the Great Northern Oktoberfest is a flagship event, said he supported the schedule change even if it is a bitter pill to swallow, particularly as he anticipated the largest gathering ever given the 10-year milestone.
“This option will have the greatest impact on the Chamber of Commerce. It will probably cost us between $5,000 and $8,000 and we will have to move, so I don’t know what it will cost us in terms of people who don’t come because of the new location,” Gartland said at the meeting. “But there is no doubt that summertime construction in downtown is going to have an effect on downtown businesses, and if there is someone who is going to have to bite the bullet or jump on the sword it should be the Chamber and not the individual businesses. I would hope the city could help absorb the costs of us moving elsewhere. I would much rather go that route than impact the small downtown businesses.”
Paul Abu Taleb, director of operations for Tupelo Restaurant Group, which includes Tupelo Grille and Abruzzo Italian Kitchen, estimated that if the project had proceeded as originally scheduled it would have produced a revenue loss of between 15 and 25 percent during the primary period during which businesses generate a profit in the downtown market.
“That kind of loss is not simply a lighter year but the difference for some businesses between making payroll or not,” he said. “It’s the difference between staying in business or not.”
Many downtown businesses generate 50 percent of their sales between July and mid-September when visitation is at its highest, Abu Taleb said. Moreover, they require frequent deliveries to keep up with the added pressure.
“Tupelo alone receives 25 deliveries per week during the summer months,” he said. “This will make a stockyard out of First Avenue and Central Avenue, it will reduce parking, and it will also create waste management challenges,” he said.
“I do find it a bit ironic that a project that is largely an aesthetic improvement is proposed during a period when visitors are in town,” he added. “Shouldn’t we show off what we’ve got when we have company visiting and clean out the closet when they are gone?”
Lauren Oscilowski, owner of Spotted Bear Spirits on Railway Street, said she appreciated the careful work and planning that city staff and elected officials have poured into the Depot Park improvements. However, she said the proposed construction schedule caught her and other business owners off guard as they only learned of it last month.
“We didn’t hear about any public process, and as a business community we kind of feel in the dark here,” Oscilowski said. “We make 50 percent of our annual revenue between June and September.”
While the amended construction schedule alleviates business concerns, it costs the city and its taxpayers more.
On April 25 during a special Whitefish City Council session, Public Works Director Craig Workman said the lowest of three bids for the newly scheduled Depot Park project came in at $835,855.98 for construction costs this year, and an additional $577,730 for work next spring, which is approximately $550,000 above previous estimates.
“All said and done it’s about $1.8 million worth of work, so it comes at a pretty significant sticker,” Workman said.
“I am having a little sticker shock,” Councilor Frank Sweeney said after learning of the cost increase.
Still, Sweeney moved to approve the contract bid, though he did so “with reluctance and concern.”
Councilor Andy Feury said the Depot Park improvement project was long identified as an important one in the downtown master plan, and the cost increase is the price of accommodating businesses that would have otherwise suffered.
“It is an important project and we did acquiesce and went with the concerns of business in deciding to break this into two segments,” Feury said.
The construction project planned at Depot Park marks the second phase of park improvements as laid out in the downtown master plan and is parsed into four separate tasks.
Under the new schedule, the first task will be dispatched between mid-May and June 30 on Railway Street. The work includes constructing curb and gutters, creating angled instead of parallel parking adjacent to the park on Railway Street, along with creating a multi-use trail on the park side of the street that would continue on the north side of the O’Shaughnessy Center and to the viaduct.
The second task centers on the intersection of Railway Street and Spokane Avenue and will resume in mid-September and run through October. The work includes curb and gutter improvements and the creation of pedestrian bulb-outs at the corners.
Task three includes improvements on Spokane Avenue just north of where Railway Street intersects with Depot Street, as well as work on the east side of the park. It includes improvements to the parking on the west side of Spokane Avenue and pedestrian bulb outs at the intersection. Utility work for electrical and irrigation will take place in the park, along with turf reinforcement.
Task four involves work on Central Avenue north of Railway Street and on the northwest corner of the park. This task would take place in May and June of 2020, and involves parking improvements along the street as well as a section of a multi-use trail that would follow the edge of the park and around the O’Shaughnessy.