On Aug. 3, I celebrated 10 years at the Beacon, and soon thereafter told my coworkers that this would be my last month working at the newspaper that has been my home for a decade.
It’s a gift to be welcomed into people’s lives and be trusted to tell their stories, and that’s a part of this job that I’ll always take with me. But over the last 10 years, I’ve also sat through innumerable public meetings, uncountable hours of listening to local opinions about local issues.
And while that taught me so much, I wanted to take the opportunity to give you my opinion on how I think Flathead could and should grow, after watching it develop since 2009.
Whitefish is going to have to reckon with its popularity in a real way at some point. I understand the impulse to avoid change, but the strategy of sending big-city summer traffic through small downtown streets isn’t working out. I don’t know if that means a Whitefish bypass or adding new access across the tracks, but I do know locals won’t put up with much more of the gridlock, assuming locals can still afford to live there in the future.
Kalispell is on its way to core redevelopment, and I hope to see the downtown walking trail take on major tenants and become an attraction for visitors. This little town has changed a great deal in 10 years, and I think it would be wise to continue developing areas of cultural interest, such as the children’s museum or the KALICO projects.
Columbia Falls should more fully embrace its proximity to Glacier National Park and lean into the identity of being a basecamp for adventurers. I hope the wood-products industry continues to support this town, but it seems that more families are moving there because it’s affordable and are opening businesses there for the same reason. There’s a bit of a renaissance happening, and I’d love to see it continue.
Bigfork needs a new library branch, and I see the village supporting that effort. Like other unincorporated areas of the county, Bigfork doesn’t have a centralized local government and depends on Flathead County for services. But as more people move there, I see this becoming an issue of wanting more local control, and I’m curious to see how the village will deal with it.
Lakeside/Somers face the same unincorporated issues as Bigfork, and I’ll be just as interested to see how they decide to manage growth in the future.
Flathead County has maintained a good budget and cash reserves since I’ve been reporting on it, but with more people moving here and only three incorporated cities, I’ll bet there will be more of an emphasis on planning again, and with it, upheaval from people who don’t like planning. But like Whitefish, all of Flathead County is going to have to be realistic very soon about how you’d like to see this place grow, because growth is happening. The question will be whether the valley is ready.
My deepest hope is that despite the growth, the sense of community here remains the same. I’ve had the honor of witnessing the best and the worst of times here, and one constant has been the people who go out of their way to make life better for others.