Cold Enough

Fall is when I tend to have more time to civically engage

By Mike Jopek

Since the last column it’s been a busy time outdoors, buttoning up the farm. The garlic barely made it into the ground before it froze. Weather says it may moderate. It’s cold enough, not even winter.

Fall is when I tend to have more time to civically engage.

I put on my town pants and attended the Whitefish Sustainable Tourism Management Plan meeting at City Hall.

The room was full and people participated in the process of helping form a community plan. Whitefish is good at turning out.

I recall my early days in Whitefish, when some fixer uppers in neighborhoods like Dakota Avenue sold for less than $20,000 or some lake lots went for $30,000. Small beat-up houses rented for $175 monthly.

Wages were bad then, a lot of people had little. Life was good, people were nice, the community was open, and the great outdoors was spectacular.

Today, Whitefish is a rich place. Tourism is flourishing, driving our service and construction economy. Lots of people are making good money. There are restaurants, lodges, hotels, good public amenities, great schools and high-density development in what feels like everywhere.

Whitefish remains a genuine place, a place everyone would want to live. A place community remains as open as the great outdoors.

Today wages are still low if you need to afford things like rent, mortgages or insurance. Most service workers can’t afford to live in town. Many city workers and the past city manager no longer lived in town.

Whitefish will try to define sustainable tourism. Can it really be maintained to a certain rate or level for such a desirable place? Can public infrastructure maintain at peak season demand?

Whitefish is a place where people want to live. It’s a destination for millions of tourists, due largely to our proximity to Glacier Park.

The town has done extremely well over the decades gearing up for tourists by passing ordinances and rules allowing visitors to help pay for some of the public infrastructure costs of staying here. Hopefully it’s enough, but it’s probably not.

Last week, I put on a suit and tie from my Helena days, and moderated the two-hour Whitefish city council candidate’s forum at city hall. All five council candidates joined the mayor to take questions from the half-full room of people.

The questions were open, sincere, and on point. The answers were frank, kind, and knowledgeable.

A resident in the audience stood up, asked about how her $130 monthly water bill was possibly affordable. It was a shocking increase; some neighbors she said were at $200 monthly, and the other fees were now separate.

The new councilors will face much challenge as Whitefish grows up from a small town to one of the major resort destinations in America with millions of tourists annually visiting from around the planet.

Clearly the people who live in their homes can’t afford to subsidize tourism and workers can’t wait years or decades to find a place to live in Whitefish.

That’s the stark pace of change. It’s slow to turn big ships, even slightly. We see it in Helena, on housing-for-locals ordinances, better schools, and on big conservation efforts. Big public projects just take time. Four-year terms go by quickly.

Whitefish is as great a place as it was in the ‘80s. Sure, we got challenges. Big ones. Impossible ones. But we’re also a town that engages the public process. We know how to fix things, find solutions, or make it better. Whitefish is full of citizens standing up to make sure town remains livable.

Yesterday, Whitefish voters selected three councilors and a mayor to steer the town forward. They’ll join existing councilors to represent thousands of city voters into a new decade. Whitefish is ready.

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