Guest Column

The End of an Era on Big Mountain Road

The modest past of our stumpy ski-town roots has become a modernized playground for the ultra-rich

By Chas Vergauwen

This past summer while riding my bike down Big Mountain Road I found myself dodging contractor vehicles, construction debris and endless developmental pollution left behind. As I reached the bottom of the road to what used to be my humble abode for the last five years (now standing vacant and soon to be torn down), I was left wondering … what is coming? How did we get to this point? As I think back on my arrival 19 years ago, so much has changed. Why?

The modest past of our stumpy ski-town roots has become a modernized playground for the ultra-rich. Gone are the beloved Mom and Pop shops that have been here for more than a generation (or two). Out with the quaint coffee roasters drive-through, enter a modernized coffee stand that has no connection with our local community. Not for the better, but just because. 

Will the next phase on Big Mountain Road succumb to a similar fate? Myself, like many others who live – or lived – on Big Mountain Road have been forced to vacate the area for this urbanized, big-city, big-egocentric rendition of what used to be a ski town — the draw that brought so many here to begin with. In total, seven residences that helped form a tightly woven ski bum community sat vacant for six months after we were forced to vacate. While “millionaires’ row” was not providing a glamorous visual aesthetic to an ever-increasing materialist-valued society, it provided critical housing needs for the lifeblood of those who keep this town ticking and the lifts spinning. For years attempts to purchase these single residences were turned down in an effort to cash in and build something “bigger and better.” 

It’s a different scene altogether now. No longer do we embrace community, culture, and the importance of history. In are the outsiders, who honestly, I welcome with open arms because I too was an outsider in 2003 in calling Montana my home. The difference lies in my approach to moving here. I came here to find something different and embrace the culture. I discovered that true Montanans are people who came here for what was already here – exploration, skiing, hunting, fishing, finding peace in the mountains, farming, dreaming, writing, playing music, and passing down traditions to the next generation. The heart of Montana lies within the soul and the search for solidarity, peace, quiet, and hard-working families who appreciate and cultivate nature.

Sometimes the old giving way to the new isn’t always best. The visionaries who came here in the early days are passing on, and instead of tradition being passed down, history being kept, and people helping out a young and upcoming family, we are sinking in the quicksand of greed. Private equity companies based in New York with partners in China are buying up real estate at unprecedented levels. What was once a simple ski town is being replaced by trustafarian Gen Z’s who’ve never bussed a table or sacked groceries a day in their life. Our local restaurants will struggle to even staff the kitchens this season, but you know the demand will be unprecedented. 

What gets lost in translation from all the reinvention of Dallas or Aspen here in Stumptown is that, while the many months and years it takes for the bureaucracy to snail along, the real people who actually live here are marginalized and left in the fumes and debris. Many of us, who help fuel the reason people come, are still “homeless.” The day-use areas of state parks have become a sort of refugee camp with people who have had to make homes out of their vehicles. Many employees will drive into town just to provide for those who are literally driving them out of town. But hey, we’ll still shovel the sidewalks for you, right?

As Jack Johnson famously asked, “Where did all the good people go?” Why are we putting up with this? The ski bums who became real estate agents and general contractors who cashed in now complain about the traffic on Wisconsin Avenue. They are at a moral crossroads. Will it be their soul or their pocketbook who wins? Meanwhile, the soul of this town is losing. 

Where is our community headed? A year from now a clear sign of the new “culture” in Whitefish will be sitting at the bottom of Big Mountain Road for all the passersby to see, and only time will tell if we’re making wise decisions. I hope we can love what becomes of the change that is upon us, for it is the only constant. As for me, I intend to stay true to our roots. 

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