Whitefish puts out ‘welcome’ mat

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Central Avenue in downtown Whitefish.

Community leaders in Whitefish want the world to know that all are welcome here — including the visitors who provide a boost to the local economy.

Before a standing room only crowd at interim City Hall, Mayor John Muhlfeld Monday night issued a proclamation on behalf of the city of Whitefish saying that the town “recognizes and embraces its responsibility to promote equality for all its citizens and visitors.”

“Many of you tonight approached the city asking us to reaffirm our commitment to compassion, diversity, open-mindedness, acceptance, tolerance and kindness,” Muhlfeld told the crowd. “These are the values that are universally promoted by the citizens of Whitefish. We are neighborly and a welcoming community. We want the world to know that our doors are open to all.”

He noted it is usually at the prerogative of the Mayor to issue a proclamation, but he said he made it on “behalf of the entire community of Whitefish.”

The proclamation says that the city “repudiates the ideas and ideology of the white nationalist and so called alt-right as a direct affront to our community’s core values and principles.”

Although not mentioned by name, the proclamation came as a direct response to recent national news concerning part-time Whitefish resident Richard Spencer, the white nationalist and alt-right movement leader.

Recently, the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau has made extra efforts to provide a message that Whitefish is a welcoming place.

Lisa Jones, public relations manager for the convention and visitors bureau, said Whitefish is known for its friendliness and hospitality and it’s important that those looking to visit here know that. She noted that Flathead Valley visitors centers have received phone calls from potential visitors who are concerned about the safety of visiting the Valley.

“While everyone is welcome in Whitefish, including Richard Spencer, we need to be clear that Mr. Spencer’s extreme ideology and current national media reach citing his ties to Whitefish do not represent the values of the Whitefish community,” she said. “This proclamation states this loud and clear.”

Jones points out that the Flathead Valley counts on a significant annual economic impact by out of state visitors. According to the Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research, nonresident visitor spending reached $668 million in 2014 for Flathead County.

Spencer, president of a white supremacists think tank called the National Policy Institute, recently made national news for his support of Donald Trump in his election as president of the United States.

Trump has disavowed the views of the alt-right, a term Spencer created, which is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack.

Spencer has been featured in numerous news articles recently and is often identified as a resident, or part-time resident, of Whitefish.

Spencer had directed NPI from his home in Whitefish since 2011, but in 2014 told the Pilot he planned to move NPI to headquarters in Virginia. The Southern Poverty Law Center refers to NPI as a “hate group.”

As of presstime, Spencer had not returned a request by the Pilot for comment. However, he told the Missoulian in a recent interview that he is spending “less and less” time in Whitefish and more time in Arlington, Virginia, where he said NPI is located. Spencer said he was “perfectly fine” with the city’s efforts to disassociate itself from him.

“I imagine most people in Whitefish don’t agree with me,” he told the Missioulian.

On Monday before City Council, Tony Veseth, chairman of the board of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, spoke on behalf of the chamber and the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“The Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce have always supported a diverse and unified community based on mutual respect,” he said. “We are proud of our city government proclaiming and reiterating Whitefish core values of dignity, diversity, and inclusion of all of its residents and visitors, while condemning ideologies, philosophies and movements that discriminate and deny equality of human rights.”

It’s been two years since City Council adopted a community values resolution that declared the city’s intention to take a stance in support of diversity and inclusion. Earlier this year, Council followed that up by passing a human rights law designed to protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

In recent weeks, leaders have been citing those resolutions as documentation that Whitefish celebrates diversity of all its citizens and visitors.

Councilor Frank Sweeney was one of the city leaders who worked to bring the resolution and ordinance forward for a vote.

Sweeney chose to quote the words of Evan McMullin, a former CIA agent and House Republican leadership staffer, from a New York Times piece to sum up his own feelings.

“We must never forget we are born equal with basic natural rights including those of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he said. “Those rights are inherent in any of us because we are human, not because they are granted by government. Government exists primarily to protect those natural rights.”

Love Lives Here, a nonprofit that is an affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network, pushed for passage of the original community values resolution. The group has continued to push back against Spencer attempting to distance Whitefish from him. Members of the group filled Council Chambers again Monday to show their support for the proclamation.

Love Lives Here has been encouraging local businesses to display “Love Lives Here” signs in their store windows to show their support of “a diverse and unified community based on mutual respect.” The signs also dotted the Council Chambers.

Veseth said the town supports the efforts of Love Lives Here to highlight the inclusive values of the community.

“Whitefish always has been, and always will be, a place where people feel welcome with warm hospitality,” he said.

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