Uncommon Ground

Peak Summer

Like most locals, we enjoy the slower pace of shoulder-season as the planet rotates into springtime

By Mike Jopek

We went back to that same local restaurant we ate at before the pandemic began two years ago. It seems a dreadfully long time. More time lay ahead, even if we ignore it. The isolation from society proved unbearable for many. 

Some cracked, many suffered, and everyone changed in some way. Reminisce about the past years and it’ll become apparent. Stuff changed.

We’d again celebrated a friend’s birthday at that restaurant as we did years earlier. Both occasions people looked happy, ate plenty, shared a laugh and a drink. Yet throughout the restaurant and the other establishments, something seems distinctly different.

There’s plenty of money flowing. It sure feels like business is back. The workers seem younger. The patrons well dressed, like they’re from the big city. Maybe it’s just me, a rapidly aging farmer arriving in my casual work attire, missing the wardrobe memo. 

I still look at for-sale homes, knowing full well that there are no properties that local wages can buy anywhere throughout the valley. Whitefish enjoyed a community-driven, locally-supported worker housing program but Montana eagerly repealed it, citing concerns for big developers.  

The pandemic welcomed scores of newcomers into the valley to invest money, buy homes, and seek the vast opportunities afforded to locals and tourists in this great valley.

A recent report by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research entitled “Montana Residents: Attitudes Towards Tourism 2021” indicated that most people now have robust feelings about the deluge of money-spending visitors.

The statewide report says that “for the first time since ITRR has been asking the question (1992), a majority of respondents (56%) agreed that the state is becoming overcrowded because of more tourists.”

In the Glacier Country district, essentially northwestern Montana, 70% of respondents “agreed or strongly agreed that their community was becoming overcrowded because of more tourists.”

The ITTR report concludes that “it appears that residents are fully aware of the economic benefits tourism provides, while also recognizing the social cost from which those economic gains are derived.”

There’s little doubt that tourism attracted much wealth into the Flathead. Yet locals are completely priced out of the housing market. The Flathead has a long history of boom-to-bust cycles. Unless a dramatically unfortunate downturn occurs, every season in the valley will soon feel like peak-summer July. 

That’s great news for the store keepers, restaurateurs and anyone in the building trades. Still, the thought of every season feeling like July gives many locals more heartburn that even teaspoons of baking soda would settle. 

Places like Columbia Falls and Whitefish implemented mitigation measures like tourist taxes to help manage the infrastructure realities of big-destination, resort towns. Both places knew it was coming, tried hard to prepare, but the unprecedented pace of change proved staggering.

I eased into the evening, looking about another restaurant. It’s wasn’t July yet so we got good seats at the table. The margaritas were flowing so quickly to the eager-eyed tablefuls of L.L. Bean-wearing, tech-outfitted skiers that the bartender never stopped shaking drinks during dinner.

Everyone felt like locals. That’s how Whitefish rolls. Though tourists sure dress weird these days, I thought. The food appeared quickly and the fresh-faced servants were friendly and seemingly happy about their work. I sure enjoy the food and friends Whitefish affords.

The loudness of places seemed excessive. I surmised other revelers missed social gatherings during the pandemic and were overeager to connect. The putative benefits to tourism aside, local people are happy to be out, seeing friends, and sharing tales.

It’s thankfully a long way from here to July. We haven’t even seeded corn yet. Like most locals, we enjoy the slower pace of shoulder-season as the planet rotates into springtime. Ease into it friends. Peak summer isn’t far.

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