Uncommon Ground


Those days are gone: embrace the current and help steer the future

By Mike Jopek

I turned on the kettle to brew some tea. It was morning outside, quiet, reminiscent of days past when loudness was the unpredictable banging of train cars at the depot. A lot has transformed over the decades after we planted our roots in the valley and began farming. 

I recall how locals welcomed us with kindness, gave us shelter from the rain as we camped at Whitefish State Park upon our return to town. Soon thereafter I got involved, volunteering on a model of the train depot that was being restored by old-timers. 

We rented a two-bedroom house on Dakota Avenue for a couple hundred a month and got low-wage jobs downtown flipping pancakes and working with kids. We walked and biked across town for essentials as our rig was too big to drive regularly. We earned enough to buy land and grew a farm.

We were the newcomers and wanted desperately to fit into this little mountain town. Over the decades we’ve worked hard to become locals, did things like volunteering at nonprofits to help our town. 

We’re not ready for old-timer status, yet seen plenty of the valley’s goodness and the despair of pain. It takes a community of individual skillsets, like it has for generations before, to build society.

You moved here for a reason. How might you get involved to keep our towns great places to live, play, and work during this time of enormous transformation which has shaken many locals? Anyone seeking that coveted local status must be willing to volunteer to make our towns better and more livable.

People in the Flathead are experiencing changes only imagined in the beforetime, when life felt simpler, and the contagious sickness was a thing of science fiction books and the memories of old-timers. The deep sense of loss, which many locals feel, won’t easily be mitigated. 

The wait is much longer at local businesses as the post-pandemic economy gave entrepreneurs exciting opportunities to earn a living and raise a family. Newcomers and old-timers have lived together in our towns for centuries as people migrated to the area. That doesn’t make it easy.

Our past neighbor moved here after the war, in the days when rural electrification and automobiles were a scarcity. They hauled water from the lake to live, and worked at the local ice house that kept food chilled across town.

Today, not many people anticipated a nation full of individuals relocating so rapidly, seeking new beginnings. The pandemic changed priorities for many people across the planet. It caught decisionmakers by surprise. The great American migration pushed many young local families to the sidelines of an international real estate market. 

Everywhere people are talking about housing. Some are flipping that second home for unimaginable profit while elsewhere young professionals are getting 30-day eviction notices throughout the valley’s sparse rentals. Adding misery and insult to local workers, Montana repealed self-rule housing policies in Whitefish and other fast-growing areas of our state. 

Hopelessness is common across the valley as nothing is available for rent. Any local decisionmaker not bold enough to help fix the housing crisis facing young families should consider retiring from service and make room for fresh ideas for our rapidly evolving valley.

It’s different now in the pandemic times. Americans are roaring like a century ago and traveling tops the list for many families with disposable income. Locals will have to again adjust to busier downtowns, crowded roadways, and long lines for food or services at salons. 

In the beforetime, locals could walk into any restaurant for a table, the hardware store to buy lumber, or the realtor seeking land. Those days are gone: embrace the current and help steer the future. It’ll be brighter, more inclusive, with your help.

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