Whitefish is no longer the sleepy mountain town it was 25 years ago, when scant development ran along the corridors radiating from its city center and tourism was a mere thread in the economic tapestry rather than the loom itself.
A groundswell of new residents has expanded the population and spurred unprecedented development while the growing tourism sector has tested the mountain community’s infrastructure to its limits. Meanwhile, year-round residents struggle to find viable housing accommodations while homeowners bristle against rising property taxes and water rates. And yet Whitefish’s quaint downtown core remains intact, its resort taxes are hard at work and its open spaces are expanding, with new acres of forested working parcels contributing to the community’s ethos of conservation and recreation.
As Whitefish breaks out of the cocoon and flutters its wings for flight, a dedicated cadre of civic leaders, along with a vested business community and a concerned citizenry, is taking pains to manage the town’s growth lest it embark on a wayward path. And with another election cycle bearing down on the Flathead Valley, voters in Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Whitefish are poised to elect new leaders to their municipal governments, bringing a host of issues to the fore of community discourse.
The top issues facing Whitefish are not surprising to those who live there 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, Mayor John Muhlfeld assures residents that Whitefish has “a clear vision of how the community will grow,” though much of that growth will be determined by a new crop of city leaders.
In Whitefish, three seats currently held by Katie Williams, Richard Hildner and Frank Sweeney are open, with five candidates having entered the race. Sweeney is the only incumbent in the hunt for a third term, while Steve Qunell, Ben Davis, Rebecca Norton, and Harry “Hap” Peters are running as newcomers.
Whitefish’s city government consists of six councilors, a mayor and a city manager. Muhlfeld is running unopposed for a third term as mayor.
Councilors and the mayor serve four-year terms, with three councilors elected every two years in a staggered format.
Ballots for the mail-only election were sent Oct. 16 and are due Nov. 5.
The Flathead Beacon spoke to city council candidates about the issues they view as most pressing (with the exception of Peters who is traveling abroad and was unavailable before press time).
One immediate issue every candidate identified as having gained the most urgency is growth, with the post-recession boom driving development to a degree that’s testing the boundaries that defined previous boom years.
“We have been through these booms before, and we have managed them, but given the size to which we have grown we are seeing even bigger developments, and trying to accommodate them has been brutal,” said Sweeney, an incumbent serving on council since 2009, when he was appointed to an empty seat (he was elected in 2011 and again in 2015). “Our infrastructure has really been stretched pretty far, from traffic to roads to water capacity, and our biggest problem right now is how we manage that development and integrate it. Integration is key.”
Candidates agree that shaping sustainable growth means cutting an equitable path for the folks who live here, but who often bear additional burdens to accommodate the heavy influx of visitors, particularly during peak summer and winter months.
Ben Davis, a 37-year-old business owner in the building industry who chairs the Whitefish Housing Authority Board and the city’s Strategic Housing Steering Committee while serving on the Board of Adjustments and Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, said his front-row view of the explosion in housing developments and the affordability crisis puts him in a unique position to represent the full spectrum of Whitefish stakeholders.
“Our town is going to grow to some degree, but I think we have to make sure it is growing in a way that serves us best,” he said. “Our water rates increasing is just example of a tourist-driven economy forcing residents to pay more for something than you would in other towns because we have to size our water infrastructure to accommodate for the worst-case scenario. Tourism has been a huge boon for our economy, but our economic growth needs to coincide with what works for the people who live here.”
Davis gave high honors to Whitefish’s commitment to character, which he promised to consider when balancing growth and community values, and also gave high praise to its zoning laws, which he understands how to interpret.
“My perspective is not that anything goes, but it’s also not anti-development,” he said. “You have to be center of the road and you have to be balanced and be committed to working through the details.”
Candidates Rebecca Norton and Steve Qunell similarly have depths of experience in local government, with Qunell serving as chairman of the Whitefish Planning Board, as well as on the Board of Adjustments and Lakeshore Protection Committee.
Norton has also served on the planning board, and cut her teeth in local government serving on the tree committee, which remains a point of pride as she boasts of Whitefish’s urban forest of 7,400 trees.
Still, she worries that Whitefish citizens aren’t as engaged in the public process as they could be, and as a councilor she pledges to be more inclusive to residents.
“As we continue to grow, I would like to see more outreach to neighborhoods during the planning process so that we have more buy-in from neighborhoods,” she said. “I would like my neighbors to know more about the process so they aren’t blindsided.”
Billing himself as a “middle-of-the-road candidate,” Qunell said he’s become adept at the balancing act critical to sound municipal government.
“If we are too restrictive, we don’t get enough growth, and if we are too permissive, we lose the character of our town,” he said. “It’s a little bit of rocket science and a little bit of tightrope walking all of the time. But I do pride myself on being informed when I make decisions and I always explain clearly why I am voting a certain way.”