Chamber makes last-minute plea to retain Depot Park building

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On behalf of the Board of Directors of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, we are making one last request to the Whitefish City Council to lease the existing Depot Park building to the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce (and other local non-profits) for use as the city’s official visitor center, rather than demolishing it.

We believe the building to be a valuable asset to the city, and — potentially — a tremendous benefit to those who visit our town and the tourist-based economy that thrives because of them. We understand that the Council has considered — and denied — this proposal in the past. Since that time, however, the estimated cost of demolishing the structure has more than quadrupled. We feel that’s a significant enough reason to merit reconsideration of this issue, in the interest of fiscal common sense.

Based on the many conversations that our board members have had with our membership and the general public, we believe that the percentage of local residents who would prefer to keep that building for use as a visitor center is far greater than the number who’d like to see it destroyed. Unfortunately, those are the voices that the Council may not have heard, because they’re not regular Council meeting attendees.

Let me first address the city’s economics.

The taxpayers of the city of Whitefish continue to bear the burden of rising property taxes, resort taxes and other fees, due to the number (and cost) of the major projects that have been undertaken in recent years.

With an estimated $15 million to $30 million sewage treatment plant project on the horizon that promises to increase water/sewer rates even more, does the city really want to unnecessarily burden taxpayers for the demolition of the Deport Park building when, instead, it could become a source of income?

When the Council met to consider the Chamber’s lease proposal last year, the demolition cost was estimated at around $20,000. Today, the estimated cost of this tear down is more than $120,000.

We find it hard to rationalize that this is a good use of taxpayer funds when instead, the city could actually generate $36,000 or more in income each year by leasing the building to the Chamber. Instead of spending $120,000-plus to destroy the building, the city would realize at least $360,000 in rental income — that’s close to half a million dollars in public money.

The city’s downtown master plan’s recommendation that Depot Park be primarily “open space” has always been the fall back reason for demolishing the building. A couple of thoughts in that regard:

In my 35-plus year career, I have been involved with writing and augmenting many master plans. In none of them has every single component been implemented, nor any one recommendation been considered a “hands off” item.

Master plans are intended to be general road maps that adapt and change due to circumstances that develop over time. For example, the master plan for Big Mountain from the 1980s has morphed considerably over time because of the changes to our original assumptions. If it hadn’t changed, the outcome would be incompatible with the current business environment.

If one of the considerations in the master plan was to retain open space within the city, did the plan include as an assumption the city would contribute $7.7 million to the purchase of the Haskill Basin conservation easement? And even if not, is the little bit of ground beneath the Depot Park building really that critical to the city’s general well-being? We have 2 million acres of forest surrounding the city, with view corridors everywhere. Including from Depot Park.

Is sticking to the master plan just a point of pride of authorship?

Many of us travel to (and vacation in) towns like Whitefish around the world. It’s quite common for the Chamber of Commerce or visitor/welcome center in these towns to be in a centrally located park or greenspace near their commercial district.

Depot Park is a natural location for our city’s Chamber and visitor center. Its proximity to the downtown business district, the historic train depot, the O’Shaughnessy Center and our new parking structure all add up to more exposure for our visitor center ... and more opportunities for the Chamber staff to promote Whitefish, return tourism and our local businesses to visitors and locals alike.

There’s no question that the half-million people who visit Whitefish each year would be better served if our city’s official visitor center was located there. And I don’t think the extra 10,000 square feet of park lawn would even be noticed.

We urge the City Council to consider this request in spite of the current direction. It’s never too late until the building is knocked down.

Dan Graves is Board Chairman for the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce.

Editor’s note: An original estimate by the city of $20,000 to $30,000 was solely for the demolition of the building and did not include reclamation of the land or work in the park to make the site usable. Demolition of the building combined with work on the site, including asbestos remediation, parking lot demolition, tree removal, stump removal, existing irrigation system removal, sod removal, abandoning an existing monitoring well, sign removal, and excavation and embankment, is now estimated to cost $116,000, according to the city. Additional work in the park related to adapting the site for continued special event use is also expected to cost about $160,000.

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