Housing, schools, business, conservation top stories of year

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  • A groundbreaking ceremony in late August celebrated the new Alpenglow Apartments set to be constructed on Edgewood Place. The project is a partnership between the Whitefish Housing Authority and Homeword of Missoula and will provide 38 affordable housing units just north of downtown. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    The Stillwater State Forest is west of Whitefish. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    The new Nelson's Ace Hardware store opened on Highway 93 in March. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Wild Coffee Company owner Marissa Keenan stands behind the counter inside the café. Keenan, along with her husband Sam Dauenhauer, recently opened the shop at 309 Central Avenue. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    School staff and Martel Construction workers admire the kindergarten wing of the new Muldown Elementary during a school board tour of the school. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Homes are under construction in the Trailview subdivision near the intersection of Monegan and Voerman roads on the eastern edge of town. The subdivision will include 58 single-family homes. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

  • A groundbreaking ceremony in late August celebrated the new Alpenglow Apartments set to be constructed on Edgewood Place. The project is a partnership between the Whitefish Housing Authority and Homeword of Missoula and will provide 38 affordable housing units just north of downtown. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    The Stillwater State Forest is west of Whitefish. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    The new Nelson's Ace Hardware store opened on Highway 93 in March. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Wild Coffee Company owner Marissa Keenan stands behind the counter inside the café. Keenan, along with her husband Sam Dauenhauer, recently opened the shop at 309 Central Avenue. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    School staff and Martel Construction workers admire the kindergarten wing of the new Muldown Elementary during a school board tour of the school. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Homes are under construction in the Trailview subdivision near the intersection of Monegan and Voerman roads on the eastern edge of town. The subdivision will include 58 single-family homes. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

A look at the top headlines that shaped 2019 in Whitefish.

Workforce housing

Whitefish has been working on issues related to providing affordable and workforce housing for several years. A few major strides toward solutions occurred this past year.

According to the city’s 2016 housing needs assessment about 56% of Whitefish’ workforce commutes into town for work, and 34% of those workers say they would prefer to live in Whitefish. The needs assessment shows the city needs to add roughly 980 housing units by 2020 to meet demand.

The first affordable multi-family rental property to be constructed in Whitefish since 2004, the Alpenglow Apartments broke ground on Edgewood Place in late August. The project includes 38 apartments providing deed-restricted housing for residents who earn below the area median income.

The project is the culmination of several years of work to obtain a site and financing for the project. The Whitefish Housing Authority has partnered with Homeword, a Missoula nonprofit housing developer, to construct the $8.7 million project.

“This project means 38 extremely affordable homes and that impacts the lives of 38 families,” said Ben Davis, chair of the Whitefish Housing Authority board, during the groundbreaking. “This project was started by this community and it will remain in the future for this community.”

The City of Whitefish has also been heavily involved in the project providing $150,000 to assist with funding for the purchase of the property roughly a block from Wisconsin Avenue.

In 2018, Alpenglow Apartments earned a low income housing tax credit from the state Board of Housing to develop the rental housing.

Rent is expected to range from $400 to $900 for the apartments. The goal is to have them ready for occupancy in late 2020.

Late in the fall, another affordable housing project celebrated the beginning of construction of its first homes in the project. Trailview subdivision is the city’s first completely affordable housing subdivision.

The project near the intersection of Monegan and Voerman roads on the eastern edge of town is planned to include 58 single-family homes. The project will include 100% of its homes both as traditional deed-restricted based on income and for local workers.

Jerry Dunker and Dave Brandt are behind the project.

“When people see the product we know they’ll be impressed with what they see,” Dunker says.

The least expensive home in the project at 1,020-square feet includes one bedroom and one bathroom, along with an office/guest room and over-sized two-car garage. The cost for the home in the first phase is listed at $265,000.

Legislative action that could lead to even more workforce housing was adopted by City Council over the summer.

In July, the city’s inclusionary zoning program went into effect. The Legacy Homes Program requires that 20% of all housing as part of new residential developments that require a discretionary permit to be deed-restricted as affordable housing.

The program relies on inclusionary zoning, a housing tool that links the production of affordable housing to the production of market-rate housing. The affordable units are deed-restricted through the Whitefish Housing Authority for local working people.

City Council adopted the measure following months of meetings and conversations about how the program would work as part the city’s zoning codes. For developers providing deed-restricted affordable housing, the program include incentives such as increasing density, allowing for higher buildings or reducing parking.

The city has estimated that the first housing units — rentals or houses for purchase — won’t be available until 2021.

In fall of 2019, the first project to be reviewed under the Legacy Homes Program was submitted to the city.

City Council on Jan. 6 is set to hold a public hearing and vote on a request by Central Avenue WF to construct two buildings with 18 units each of apartments on East Seventh Street and East Eighth Street. The buildings would include seven apartments for affordable housing.

Conservation and

Recreation

A gathering in July celebrated the return of roughly 13,400 acres to the Stillwater State Forest. Local folks, along with representatives from state and federal agencies gathered on the Stillwater to celebrate the completion of the Stillwater Forest Conservation Easement, previously known as the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project. The Weyerhaeuser timber company agreed to sell the land to the Trust for Public Land, which facilitated conservation easements to preserve the forestland to be managed by DNRC.

“This is a great day in the history of the state of Montana and the Stillwater State Forest,” said John Tubbs, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Planned projects for future recreation and conservation efforts also made headlines this year.

The DNRC in January gave a green light to one of the final segments of the Whitefish Trail loop and a conservation easement around Smith Lake. The Stillwater State Forest of the DNRC released it decision approving the environmental assessment for Whitefish Legacy Partners’ planned project to connect the trail from Beaver Lake to Swift Creek, west of Whitefish Lake on state land, along with a public recreation use easement located east of the Swift Creek Trailhead in the Smith Lake area.

Legacy Partners said the project supports conservation, recreation, education and the working forest in perpetuity on State Trust Lands.

However, a group of residents said constructing a section of the proposed trial between Swift and Lazy creeks as part of a potential connection for the trail doesn’t make sense. They oppose the trail section, saying it would displace wildlife from high-quality habitat noting that the wetlands provide secure habitat for grizzly bears, moose, wolves, lynx and other wildlife.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission in October endorsed the Stillwater River Conservation Project, allowing Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks to further negotiate the easement and complete related analysis. The proposed 1,000-acre conservation easement along the Stillwater River near Olney looks to provide permanent protection for a key piece of forest and wetland property.

The Flathead National Forest in November released final approval for the Taylor Hellroaring Project. The project includes 28 miles of new trails and identifies about 1,800 acres of vegetation treatment planned for on the Tally Lake Ranger District northwest of Whitefish. Implementation of the project is expected to begin in summer 2020.

The Flathead Forest, also in November, released a draft decision and finding of no significant impact for the expansion of the Hellroaring Basin at Whitefish Mountain Resort. The expansion would include four terrain modifications, eight new ski runs, the relocation of Chair 8 and installation of a new chairlift to Hellroaring peak, selective tree removal and construction of two service roads in the basin.

Schools

There’s always plenty of activity in the Whitefish School District. Students had many successes in 2019 and the school district looked for ways to improve learning and plan for the future.

Highlights this year included the January announcement that Whitefish’s graduation rate for the 2017-18 year was 86.4%, which left the school sitting above the state average. The graduation rate was the highest for the school since the measurement became the standard in 2011.

The School District adopted a strategic plan for the next six years, laying a path for academic growth for each and every Whitefish student. The board in May adopted the plan considered a “living document,” setting out the district’s goals and priorities for the future.

Three guiding principles lead the plan — that teaching and learning occurs effectively in both collaborative and independent processes, that working together develops mutual respect, strong relationships and trust within schools and the community, and that Whitefish Schools provide a foundation for an informed democracy.

Construction continued in 2019 on the new $26.5 million Muldown Elementary School building. The 84,000-square-foot school is designed to house a capacity of about 755 students and is scheduled to open in fall of 2020. The new school will be a two-story building with a full-size gym. The project has remained on schedule and on budget throughout the construction process, which began in July 2018.

The School Board in September voted to retain the kindergarten and fourth-grade wings of the current school building, while tearing down the rest of the school building including the gym. The demolition will occur after the new building is complete.

Whitefish Schools Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt in the fall turned in her resignation to the Board of Trustees effective at the end of the 2019-20 school year. She is currently serving in her fifth year as superintendent.

The School Board retained Ray & Associates to begin the search for a new superintendent.

The Whitefish Independent High School in December celebrated 20 years of providing alternative education to students. What began as an experiment, the school now caters to about 25 students.

Whitefish educators were also honored for their work.

Whitefish Middle School Assistant Principal Jackie Fuller was inducted into the University of Montana Western Education Hall of Fame. She plans to retire at the end of the school year.

Whitefish High School family and consumer sciences teacher Amanda Matdies received the New Achiever Award from the American Association of Family and Sciences.

A number of interesting projects and lessons were the focus for Whitefish students last year inside and outside the classroom.

Whitefish High School’s DECA and FREEFLOW clubs launched a campaign to reduce the number of plastic bottles used at Bulldogs sporting events. The goal was to get folks to purchase reusable bottles that could be refilled rather than throwing away plastic bottles.

Following months of work, high school advanced chemistry students presented their work to remediate contaminated soil in the greenhouse and outdoor garden beds at the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship, trying out a variety of different techniques to essentially pull the herbicide contamination out of the dirt.

“There’s a lot of things people say but there’s not a lot of definitive solutions, and it’s been really cool to be able to go out and find a solution for ourselves,” said student Jessica Henson.

Whitefish Middle School students in November made a donation of more than $4,000 to North Valley Food Bank.

Economic Development

There’s always a lot happening in Whitefish in terms of growth and development. This year seemed particularly strong for new businesses opening and longtime businesses making major changes.

Mayor John Muhlfeld during his state of the city address in April, said the “state of the city is strong.”

“We do have a clear plan and we do have a vision for how this community will grow,” he said. “We’re making great strides to address the issues facing the city.”

In one of the largest shifts in the local business community, Nelson’s Ace Hardware opened in a new location on U.S. Highway 93. Owners Rick and Marilyn Nelson, along with their daughter, Mariah Joos, operate the hardware store started by Rick’s parents on Central Avenue.

The family closed down the downtown store that had operated for more than 70 years, to open a larger store on the highway with the goal of providing better access and a larger number of products while still retaining the same customer service that has been a source of pride for them.

A new addition to Central Avenue, Wild Coffee Company opened its doors in the spring. Wild is owned by the husband and wife team that created Sweet Peaks Ice Cream, Sam Dauenhauer and Marissa Keenan. The cafe opened with the goal of serving quality coffee and food in a community environment.

Upstairs from Wild, Love Yoga opened its doors with the owners wanting to share their love of yoga with others.

The Out West Trading Co., a unique gifts and clothing store, opened on Central Avenue in late fall inside the former Nelson’s Ace Hardware space on Central Avenue.

McDonald’s in December wrapped up a major remodel. The restaurant, owned by Bud and Chris Jahnke and son D.J. Jahnke, opened with a new modern look both inside and out.

The Bridge Medical Center celebrated 20 years of caring for patients.

Fleur Bake Shop, which opened in 2017, made the move to Central Avenue with an expanded shop.

Ed McGrew opened Ed’s BBQ behind Lakestream Fly Shop on Highway 93.

Spanky’s and Gus opened on Spokane Avenue selling vinyl records, but also equipments for musicians and more.

Trovare, a gourmet foods, cookware and olive oil and vinegar shop, opened on Central Avenue.

Wasabi Sushi Bar and Ginger Grill and Tamarack Ski Shop both celebrated 20 years in business.

Though no major work appears to have occurred on the site as of yet, City Council in January approved a mixed-use building on Central Avenue at the site of the former Lakestream Fly Shop. The building is expected to house retail and commercial uses on the ground floor and residential on the second and third floors.

In June, Council approved plans for a new three-story mixed-use building at the corner of Lupfer Avenue and Second Street. The building is planned to have three commercial units and 13 residential units.

Later in the year, the homes on the site were torn down and site work has began on the property.

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