A look at the top headlines that shaped 2018.
Whitefish appears to have made some early strides in the quest for providing affordable and workforce housing for the city. Years of discussion and meetings seem to be turning into action to tackle the shortage of housing that exists 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.
A large milestone in providing housing occurred in late fall when Homeword, along with the Whitefish Housing Authority, was awarded low-income tax credit from the state Board of Housing for $6.7 million to develop a rental housing project planned for Edgewood Drive. The plan calls for developing a 38-unit rental housing project serving residents with an income of 60 percent or less of the area median income.
The Edgewood project goes before City Council on Jan. 7 for a vote on a planned unit development for the site. Those involved say the $8 million project is on track for construction to begin in summer 2019.
Significant work took place this year in developing the Alta Views subdivision aimed at providing workforce housing. Construction on the townhouse project off JP Road began in the spring and by fall the first building opened with model homes.
The first group of townhouses is expected to be completed this winter and those involved say the goal is to find local owners for the homes.
The Whitefish Strategic Housing Plan steering committee continues to work on a number of strategies with the goal of creating affordable and workforce housing.
Released in draft form this fall, the Whitefish Legacy Homes Program details continue to be hammered out. The draft program aims to provide more affordable workforce housing in Whitefish by implementing inclusionary zoning, which would require a certain portion of new developments or construction to be set aside for affordable housing. The draft calls for 20 percent of total development projects to be deed restricted as affordable. As an offset for providing housing, the committee was considering recommending a list of incentives that would reduce certain development standards.
Eventually, any changes to city regulations would have to go before the Planning Board and then City Council for a vote.
The city also hosted a few meetings this year to gather input on the future of the snow lot at the corner Railway Street and Columbia Avenue. The city has targeted the lot for potential development of an affordable housing project.
There’s always a lot going on at Whitefish Schools throughout the year, between music performances and athletic triumphs, not to mention exciting projects happening in the classroom.
Following seven years of planning and millions of dollars in donations, the Whitefish School District opened the cutting-edge Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship last spring. The center located adjacent to the high school began with the idea of building a green house and blossomed into a full learning center at a cost of $2.7 million that has been an education tool for students in elementary to high school.
The project includes a building featuring a 1,200-square-foot greenhouse attached to a two-story building with two 1,500-square-foot classrooms, and outdoor gardens.
Whitefish High School chemistry students this fall began an experimental project at the heart of the center’s mission to provide hands-on learning. Students are experimenting with several methods in hopes of remediating soil contaminated with an herbicide.
This year discussion and excitement has also remained surrounding the construction of a new Muldown Elementary School building.
In June, the Whitefish School Board approved the exterior design of the building showing a mix of colors like green, gray and a wood-grain pattern among a variety of materials all around the school. Designs for the entrance shows a tall set of glass windows looking into the school with a slanted, overhanging roof.
The new Muldown is planned to be about 84,000-square-feet over two stories and include a new gym, and be designed to house about 755 students.
Though not slated for completion until 2020, students and teachers got a tour of the early phases of construction by using the project as an outdoor classroom in October for Construction Week. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen also visited the construction site and spoke with high school students. By year’s end the district was reporting the project as on budget and ahead of the construction schedule. The new building is budgeted at $26.5 million.
The current Muldown building faces overcrowding and a deteriorating infrastructure, prompting the decision to construct a new building near East Seventh Street and Pine Avenue.
There seems to be hardly a quiet time when it comes to housing and commercial development in Whitefish. New projects seem to pop up frequently or officials are planning to guide future projects and provide services for what may come down the road.
One potential major development project was nixed this summer after months of discussion, while another came to the forefront this fall.
City Council in August rejected a land use plan for 70 acres fronting U.S. Highway 93 South. Whitefish 57 LLC and Eagle Enterprises had been seeking a subarea plan for the property between JP Road and Park Knoll Lane.
The developer had been looking to allow both commercial and residential future development on the property, but Council said the plan didn’t match the vision for Whitefish for the next 50 years.
Submitted to the city in the fall of 2018, a plan by Riverbank Properties looks to create 234 apartments on the former North Valley Hospital site. The project is looking to develop seven buildings to house a variety of apartments on the 11.8-acre site across the highway from Safeway. Affordable workforce housing is proposed as part of the plan.
Some have said the project would provide necessary housing, but would add to traffic congestion at Columbia Avenue and 13th Street. The project, which includes open space and public access to the Whitefish River, is set to go before City Council for a vote on Jan. 7.
Though it’s been on the to-do list for more than a decade, the city of Whitefish in 2018 finally began work on a corridor plan for Highway 93 South from Sixth Street to Blanchard Lake Road.
A committee working to develop the plan held an open house to gather input from the public for how the entrance to the city should develop in the future. Another meeting is set for this month as work continues on the plan.
In planning for future needs, Whitefish decided to increase its impact fees for new homes by about $1,300 beginning in 2019. The city collects fees in seven areas for new development that increases the demand for city services. Though it approved an increase, Whitefish’s fees still remained lower than Kalispell and Bozeman.
Planing for the future regarding tourism, the city launched the Sustainable Tourism Management Plan Committee with the goal of creating a tourism master plan that would create a vision for how tourism can grow, while still allowing Whitefish to maintain its quality of life.
Whitefish was at the center of larger conversations about how recreation can impact the economy.
The first Business of Outdoor Recreation Summit held in Whitefish brought together 250 participants from Montana and the nearby Crown of the Continent areas to discuss the business of outdoor recreation and ways to create growth within the outdoor industries. The Montana Governor’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, the Crown of the Continent Geotourism Council and Whitefish Legacy Partners hosted the event.?Montana Gov. Steve Bullock kicked off the summit, noting the outdoor recreation economy delivers over $7.1 billion in annual consumer spending and employs over 71,000 people each year in the state.
Late in 2017 a study by Headwaters Economics showed the impact of recreation locally when it found that $6.1 million is spent every year in Whitefish by those that use the Whitefish Trail. The study also showed that outdoor recreation is the No. 1 reason for visiting Whitefish.
Earlier in 2018, a panel of scientists, those involved with outdoor recreation, and advocates for finding solutions to climate change were part of a panel discussion event here. Scientists noted that changes in the climate could have possible impacts to winter recreation while pointing to stories of those working in winter outdoor recreation who are having to adapt to shorter and less snowy winters, and how that has impacted businesses and towns relying on recreation economies.
Completing a multi-phase and multi-year conservation project the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project northwest of Whitefish Lake was finalized this year.
The state Land Board approved the final phase of the project in September and the deal was officially completed the next month adding 13,400 acres to the Stillwater State Forest and protecting that land through multi-phase conservation easements.
Years in the making, the project placed what had been private timberland owned by Plum Creek and later Weyerhaeuser into conservation easements.
The Trust for Public Land, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation officials say the deal protects important fish and wildlife habitat, public access and recreational opportunities while also promoting sustainable forest management.
The block of land had been a gap in the state forest since it was sold by Montana in the early 20th century, and has been long viewed as a priority for public land conservation by reconnecting the original ownership of the land.
The Montana Watershed Coordination Council’s 2018 Symposium “Advancing Conservation through Effective Communication” in October brought more than 150 participants here to learn about communications strategies, compelling storytelling, effective fundraising, social media, and more. One of the field trips as part of the symposium looked at Whitefish’s Haskill Basin conservation easement, which protects about 3,000 acres of forestland north of town.
The Haskill Basin conservation easement was also included in 2018 as part of a Headwaters Economics case study report in how to go about protecting watershed areas while still promoting and creating recreational opportunities.