On an early September evening, Whitefish resident Gloria Nelson walked around the Smith Fields Athletic Complex on the south side of Whitefish. The Whitefish High School varsity and junior varsity soccer teams were practicing, the Flathead Valley United (FVU) soccer clubs held their first practices for the fall season, and the playground was packed with younger kids, while parents milled around.
“I just love seeing the whole complex packed with people,” said Gloria Nelson. “Every day you can walk by the sports fields and they’re in use — we really see this place as a huge community asset, and we want to keep serving the community as much as we can.
Nelson is the executive director of Project Whitefish Kids (PWK), the nonprofit that built and is responsible for all management and maintenance of Smith Fields. The complex consists of 55 acres and comprises eight soccer fields, five baseball fields, four softball fields, two concession stands, restrooms, a playground and parking for roughly 400 cars. The complex will soon have public pickleball courts to meet the growing popularity of the racket sport.
In addition to providing home fields to the Bulldogs soccer programs, Smith Fields is the home of numerous recreational sports leagues, including FVU, Flathead Lacrosse, the Cal Ripken Baseball League and the Whitefish Softball Association. It is also the future home of the North Valley Music School.
The playground, which was renovated in 2018, is within walking distance of more than 600 family homes on the south side of Whitefish and is the only park and playground south of Sixth Street in the city. The complex has also hosted numerous community gatherings, including the Great Northwest Oktoberfest, Alpine Theater Project plays and outdoor movie nights.
“Lots of people talk about what amazing amenities are available in Whitefish, but what I don’t think a lot of people, especially newer residents, know is the generosity and culture of philanthropy in the valley that makes these possible,” Nelson said. “A lot of people think places like Smith Fields is a public, city-run facility but it’s not, and I want to continue educating the public about that so we can continue breeding that atmosphere of generosity.”
Nelson first got involved with Project Whitefish Kids in 2016, when her oldest daughter played on Whitefish’s varsity soccer team. During games, her middle child, then 4, wanted to play on the playground, but Nelson was wary of the existing structure.
“Back then, the playground was not an independent playground. It was this old wooden structure of towers that wasn’t all that safe,” she said. Nelson approached the PWK board and asked about putting in a new playground that would be state of the art and provide a safer place for young children to play.
“They said ‘yes, you can do anything you want as long as you raise the money,’” Nelson said. “That’s still how we operate. We like to tell people that it’s their park, and they can shape it however they want.”
Nelson spent three years on the fundraising campaign and $300,000 later, the playground underwent a complete renovation and was unveiled in 2018. She continued to be involved with the organization, volunteering to lead fundraising efforts for a new pavilion and ongoing maintenance projects until the board hired her as its first executive director in 2021. While there are three seasonal maintenance workers on staff, Nelson is the only year-round employee.
“I didn’t really come in with any visions of grandeur for the complex, but really wanted to continue cementing the legacy,” she said. “There are always projects to work on and fundraise for, and every single one of them is worthwhile.”
Project Whitefish Kids was formed in 1997 by a group of community members that wanted to see a place within city limits for kids to play sports. The city of Whitefish didn’t have the budget for an athletic complex so the nonprofit led by Don Bestwick, currently the PWK board president, raised $1.5 million and acquired a 55-acre tract of land in 2002. The group deeded the property to the city, and began to lease it back for the nominal fee of $1 per year. All management and maintenance of the sports complex is overseen by the nonprofit, which receives no public funding.
Nelson said that the annual operating budget is around $120,000, which includes salaries and maintenance work and pales in comparison to similar complexes in other cities. The Kalispell Youth Athletic Complex (Kidsports) comprises 38 athletic fields and is roughly the same size as the PWK complex, but it shares personnel and maintenance costs with the city of Kalispell.
Project Whitefish Kids is funded through philanthropic contributions, a $35 user fee charged to all participants in the rec leagues that utilize the facilities — roughly 1,500 youth athletes last year — and by hosting several regional tournaments. Nelson said that PWK hopes to improve its funding mechanisms, including by increasing the endowment held at the Whitefish Community Foundation, which would ease the financial stress that can arise from unexpected situations — a broken lawn mower, for example, can easily throw a wrench in the small annual budget.
“New top-line commercial lawnmowers are expensive, but when you manage 55 acres of grass fields that’s an essential piece of equipment to have at all times,” Nelson said. “Unfortunately, a lawn mower is not a very sexy thing to fundraise for. Pickleball courts on the other hand, that’s easy.”
Across the parking lot from the playground, construction fencing blocks off two large slabs of concrete that were poured at the end of August. Once surfaced and painted in the coming weeks Project Whitefish Kids will unveil six new pickleball courts, the latest addition to the Smith Fields complex.
In keeping with PWK’s “if you raise the money you can do what you want” mantra, Nelson said Whitefish philanthropist Carol Atkinson approached the organization about adding pickleball courts to the sports complex to boost the sport’s growing popularity. Atkinson took charge of the $250,000 fundraising project, aided by a $20,000 Major Community Project grant from the Whitefish Community Foundation and matching donation from residents Sherry and Dave Lesar last fall, which allowed construction to move forward over the spring and summer.
“The courts are going to be an instant hit, and it’s that kind of community-supported and focused growth that really excites me,” Nelson said. “It’s only going to keep growing from here.”
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