Public Weighs In on Whitefish Tourism Plan

‘Finding the Balance’ visioning workshop draws crowd in search of sustainable solution for town that depends on outside spending

By Tristan Scott
Parking spaces in downtown Whitefish along Central Avenue as seen on July 2, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

From retail stores to farmers markets, bars and restaurants, tourists spend a large chunk of change in Northwest Montana every year, and Flathead County reaps a sizable share of the benefits.

According to the University of Montana’s Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research (ITRR), tourists spent $3.58 billion statewide last year, an increase of 10.5 percent from the previous year’s spending estimate of $3.24 billion, and the latest evidence underscoring the economic impact of nonresident visitation on the local economy.

Broken down by region, tourist-generated economic activity in Glacier Country is especially vibrant, attracting 33.7 percent of all nonresident dollars, or roughly $1.21 billion in direct spending, the ITRR data says.

Glacier and Yellowstone travel regions received the highest percentage of nonresident spending, 34 and 31 percent, respectively. Of the 56 counties in Montana, Gallatin ($814 million) and Flathead ($614 million) counties had the highest amount of spending.

In Flathead County, that spurred $486.5 million of direct economic activity and an additional $338 million in indirect economic activity.

It’s not all money in the bank, however, particularly as the crush of visitors converging on quaint mountain communities like Whitefish each summer continues to grow, sharpening a double-edged sword and deepening its cuts as issues related to affordability and overcrowding worsen.

For example, in addition to furnishing Whitefish’s downtown corridor with fine dining establishments, boutique retail shops and high-end art galleries, the seasonal influx of tourists places an unprecedented strain on the town’s infrastructure, interferes with quality of life and rankles year-round residents bearing the brunt of the burden, both financially and in terms of fundamental lifestyle values, like traffic and long lines at the grocery store.

To remedy a challenge that most residents agree has come to a head, Whitefish’s community leaders, business owners and civic boosters are taking steps to reconcile the dichotomous relationship in a way that maintains the community’s character without compromising its key economic pillars.

Formed in early 2018, the Whitefish Sustainable Tourism Management Plan steering committee is charged with crafting a plan and striking a balance through which tourism can continue to boost the economy while prioritizing community efforts to sustain and enhance the wellbeing of its residents.

On Oct. 22, the committee organized a workshop and invited the community to participate in a town hall event to troubleshoot the finer points of Whitefish’s conundrum.

Facilitated by Kate McMahon of Applied Communications and Lorraine Roach of the Hingston-Roach Group, who were contracted by the city to create the plan, the workshop drew more than 75 residents who heard new data from a survey of residents and provided input on potential solutions.

According to the survey, 62 percent of respondents felt that the benefits of Whitefish’s tourist-based economy and the amenities it affords the community outweigh the negatives, while 80 percent of respondents described Whitefish as “overcrowded.”

Similarly, two-thirds of the respondents reported that adding to the groundswell of tourism would not improve the quality of life.

“Two-thirds of people said, no, they thought we were already at that tipping point and we need to manage what we have,” McMahon said.

According to survey responses, tourism has had negative impacts on transportation, parking, affordable housing, the environment and conservation, small town character, and economic issues like jobs and wages.

In addition to nonresident visitation, Whitefish and Flathead County as a whole have experienced rapid growth in recent years, with the population of Whitefish rising by 11.2 percent since 2010, compared to the average rate of population growth in Montana of 7.4 percent. Flathead County as a whole reported 12.3 percent growth since 2010, ranking third behind Gallatin and Madison counties.

“I don’t think it’s any surprise that Whitefish and Flathead County are growing at a higher rate than the rest of the state,” McMahon said.

For its part, the city of Whitefish aims to learn about and from its growth in an effort to inform upcoming decisions that will affect its resident and nonresident populations alike.

“This is about what you want your community to become but more importantly what you don’t want your community to become,” McMahon said. “So it puts side rails on growth.”

The new data also identified Whitefish’s economic base — one in four businesses, for example, are directly linked to tourism (lodging, food, retail, entertainment) and shined a light on the type of visitor frequenting Whitefish (couples on vacation to Glacier National Park and skiers).

The number of businesses that provide lodging and food in Whitefish (95 businesses with 1,833 employees) accounts for 10 percent of the city’s economic base, which is twice the national average.

“Because of tourists you have some great restaurants and fine dining, which you would likely not have if not for tourism,” McMahon said.

However, Whitefish sits below the national average in nine categories, such as jobs in science and technology, health care and social services, and manufacturing, meaning there is room for growth in those areas.

Even as tourism grows in Whitefish, it remains centered primarily on the busy summer months between June and September, with July and August bearing the biggest burden. The city’s 807 hotel rooms accommodate that influx during the busy season, but “five months of the year they are half empty,” McMahon said, adding that the lodging businesses make up for the slow months in July and August.

And housing affordability remains a prominent issue, with Whitefish’s median home value of $326,100 outpacing Flathead County’s median price of $246,000.

The Whitefish Sustainable Tourism Management Plan steering committee is charged with helping to craft those side rails to address overcrowding, affordability, transportation, small-town character, and environmental concerns. Members of the steering committee were selected by the City Council after applicants applied and interviewed for the volunteer board. Committee members include Nick Polumbus, Meagan Powell, Lauren Oscilowski (chair), Brian Schott, Craig Workman, Michelle Howke, Mariah Joos, Alan Myers Davis, and Andy Feury.

“The committee seeks ideas from a broad spectrum of residents and would like input from the Whitefish community to help us with actionable items to help drive policy for the sustainable path forward,” Oscilowski said.

The purpose of the workshop was to solicit input from community members on potential strategies for the plan, which will be presented to council for approval.

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