2017 — Year in Review

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  • North Valley Music School celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Students file into Muldown Elementary Wednesday morning for the first day of school. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Whitefish Mountain Resort is celebrating 70 years of skiing.

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    The second floor of the new City Hall features an open view down to the first floor lobby area. (Heidi Desch / Whitefish Pilot)

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    A Martel Construction employee hammers away at the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Early Flathead Valley Community College students study on the lawn of “Montana Hall” known as Central School when the campus was located in downtown Kalispell. (Photo courtesy of FVCC)

  • North Valley Music School celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Students file into Muldown Elementary Wednesday morning for the first day of school. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Whitefish Mountain Resort is celebrating 70 years of skiing.

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    The second floor of the new City Hall features an open view down to the first floor lobby area. (Heidi Desch / Whitefish Pilot)

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    A Martel Construction employee hammers away at the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Early Flathead Valley Community College students study on the lawn of “Montana Hall” known as Central School when the campus was located in downtown Kalispell. (Photo courtesy of FVCC)

A look at the top headlines that shaped 2017.

Milestones

Throughout the year there was time to take a look back to the roots of the Flathead Valley and celebrate a few historic milestones for the people, business and community.

Whitefish Mountain Resort in December celebrated its 70th anniversary. What began as Big Mountain Resort saw its first ski lifts run for the first time on Dec. 14, 1947 and today the resort continues to make upgrades and last season saw a record year in total visits.

During a Founders Day celebration last month, Lloyd “Mully” Muldown, Ed Schenck and George Prentice were honored for their work in pioneering skiing on Big Mountain. Muldown was known as the “Father of Skiing Whitefish” and Schenck and Prentice were co-founders of Winter Sports, Inc., the corporation that owns and operates the resort.

In the spring of 1967 when Flathead Valley Community College was first created organizers expected 200 people to enroll in the school, but more than 600 signed up. This spring, FVCC celebrated its 50th anniversary. In the first months of organizing the school, donations paid for salaries and in the early years of the college classes were held in buildings around Kalispell.

The college moved to its current campus in 1989 and the first classes were in 1990. Today it serves more than 3,500 students and has more than 100 academic programs.

North Valley Music School celebrated two decades of teaching children and adults to learn and explore music. Betty Lou Wambeke and Betsy Kohnstamm created the school out of their own passion for music holding the first chamber music concerts for the school by fall of 1997. When it first began the school had about 75 students and today serves about 300 students and employees 13 faculty members.

Over the last 20 years, there has been roughly 4,000 students, 14,000 lessons given and more than 600 recitals or community performances as part of the school.

After nearly seven decades of service the North Valley Hospital Auxiliary ended its service to the hospital. The Whitefish Hospital Guild, as it was known then, began supporting the community hospital in 1949. In 1969 the volunteer organization changed its name to the North Valley Hospital Guild and in 1976 to the North Valley Hospital Auxiliary. More than 300 members participated in the auxiliary over the years, providing sometimes three generations of family members who have shown support for the hospital.

In the early days, the auxiliary was the main fundraising organization for hospital equipment purchase but the North Valley Foundation, which was established in 1999, now provides fundraising efforts for the hospital.

A few other notable milestones also occurred during the year.

Though it’s had different owners over the years, the Clip Joint this year celebrated 70 years of business in Whitefish.

The Glacier Symphony and Chorale’s Festival Amadeus celebrated its 10th anniversary as a summer celebration of classical music for the Flathead Valley.

The Whitefish Review literary journal marked its 10th anniversary of publication of both new and established writers.

A new City Hall for the city of Whitefish in May opened its doors on the corner of Baker Avenue and East Second Street. The $16 million building, which also includes a parking structure, was years in planning and marked the largest civic project ever completed by the city.

Whitefish native Ryan Zinke became the first Montanan to join the president’s cabinet when he became Secretary of the Interior.

Workforce housing

Years of discussions and meetings involving what city and community leaders have termed as a “crisis” involving the shortage in housing for Whitefish’s workforce seemed to pass an important step toward solutions with the approval of the Whitefish Strategic Housing Plan in 2017. For the better part of the year the affordable housing task force hammered out the plan, which has been described as a roadmap for creating affordable housing for the city’s service employees, teachers, firefighters and young professionals who are struggling to find places to rent and own here.

Finding affordable housing options has become a challenge in Whitefish, according to a housing needs assessment released in 2016. About 56 percent of Whitefish’s workforce commutes into town for work, and 34 percent of those workers say they would prefer to live in Whitefish.

The plan, which creates goals based upon the previous assessment, sets out short and long-term priorities to create housing. One of the objectives of the plan is to focus on households with annual incomes up to $40,000 for rental housing and $75,000 for homeownership.

Kevin Gartland, executive director for the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, last month said the shortage of affordable workforce housing is a problem that has been “many years, if not decades in the making.”

Gartland called the plan “aggressive.” The top tier strategies in the plan have a goal of initial implementation by 2020.

When the plan was approved by City Council in November, Councilor Richard Hildner said the city is on the right track with the plan to accommodate those who need affordable housing options.

“It is an actionable plan, but with this plan we must move to action, and if we don’t we’ve missed a wonderful opportunity,” he said.

Schools

Whitefish School District was in the news for much of the year. There’s always the teaching and learning that goes on in the classroom that is interesting, and the community likes to watch the Bulldogs on the field and court, but the school district marked some accomplishments this year and looked to plan for the future.

Whitefish voters in October passed a $26.5 million bond request to construct a new Muldown Elementary School. The vote passed by 61.4 percent, paving the way for the Whitefish School District to construct a new elementary school to house growing enrollment and provide a solution to issues surrounding the current aging school building.

Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said the project is an important investment in the community and its children.

“Just a huge thank you to the Whitefish voters and the Whitefish community for their continued support and investment in the future of our kids,” she said this fall.

First constructed in 1966 with major renovations in 1992, the current Muldown school is now the largest elementary school in the state. The 50-year-old building suffers a number of infrastructure issues, including a failing heating system and a roof that wasn’t designed to handle Whitefish’s snow load.

The new Muldown is proposed to be about 84,000-square-feet over two stories and include a new gym, and be designed to house about 755 students.

Heading into the end of 2017, the School Board was looking at architecture firms to design the new building with the hope that a recommendation for the contractor/construction management contract would come before the board in January or February.

In May, the school district was recognized as the first Green Ribbon School District in Montana. The U.S. Department of Education gives the award out to districts that implement sustainability programming to decrease waste, increase energy efficiency, promote health and wellness for students and staff and integrate sustainability education in the classroom. Sustainability has become a key part of the school district curriculum and integrated in each of the three schools, according to the district.

At the center of those efforts is the district’s Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship located on three acres adjacent to Whitefish High School. Construction of the $2.65 million center is ongoing with expected completion in April.

Over the last few years, the sustainability center has evolved from plans for a simple greenhouse into a two-story, multi-million dollar outdoor learning center, with private funding covering much of the cost. The center is expected to include a classroom building, greenhouse and space production gardens, an experimental forest and an edible orchard.

Threats

In the waning days of 2016 and into the New Year of 2017, Whitefish was the target of threats and harassment by white supremacists. Businesses and community members faced threats during a campaign by a neo-Nazi blog asking its followers to take “action” and “troll” members of the Jewish community and the Love Lives Here advocacy group. Whitefish was also plagued by threats of a potential neo-Nazi march through town by the blog’s founder.

Though the march never materialized, the threats had Whitefish in the national spotlight for several weeks.

Whitefish responded to the threats on a number of fronts. Community members came together to create gift baskets for the families who were affected. Menorahs were hung in the windows of hundreds of homes and businesses to show support to the Jewish community.

Also in response two friends organized a community block party event, Love Not Hate. The event drew hundreds to downtown and featured live music, speakers, free food and beverages.

In a separate incident, the Whitefish School District, along with other school districts in the Flathead Valley, were forced to cancel class for three days in September due to cyber-threats made against area schools. All school-related activities were also canceled and Whitefish was forced to reschedule its homecoming activities as a result.

The threating emails and text messages began with the Columbia Falls School District and spread to other school districts. The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, local police departments, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other groups worked together to identify the group behind the threats, which sent a ransom letter requesting Columbia Falls Schools pay to keep sensitive school records and information from being leaked to the public.

Police and school officials ultimately determined that there was no real threat to students, and that the threats were part of an extortion ploy by hackers located in a different country with no ties to the Valley.

Development

Plans for major development projects came forward near the end of the year, while speculation about another project on Whitefish Lake raised concerns among neighbors.

Two separate major proposals for the development of former industrial sites in Whitefish topped the news this fall.

At the former Idaho Timber site on the north end of Karrow Avenue, Casey Malmquist, who represents the partners involved in 95 Karrow LLC, plans to develop a 22-lot mixed-use site. City Council approved the development in December.

A plan to create a 102-unit housing development off of Wisconsin Avenue also came to the forefront. Wisconsin Development Partners is proposing to develop 10 acres at the former gravel pit located on the west side of Wisconsin directly across from Alpine Village Market. The area is comprised of vacant land and the parcels for Big Mountain Trailer Court. Council delayed a vote on the proposal last month, but is expected to make a final decision on the project in January.

In March, early plans emerged for a resort development proposed by Joe Gregory near the Big Mountain Road intersection. Those involved with plans have said the development could include a resort lodge and resort residential properties. The development has the potential to be created on three properties with 27 acres on Big Mountain Road and another 11-acre lot south of East Lakeshore Drive.

The potential resort project became a significant portion of discussions involving the Wisconsin Avenue corridor plan, which looks at key development areas in the corridor and is intended to create a guide for how the corridor should develop over the next two decades. The final draft of the plan was released late in the year and is set to go before the city Planning Board this month.

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