Survey finds most don’t want more visitors here

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Thousands of spectators line Central Avenue in Whitefish for the Winter Carnival Grand Parade. (Pilot file photo)

More than 80% of those who responded to a city tourism survey believe Whitefish is overcrowded. While more than half of those same respondents say that the benefits of tourism outweigh the negatives, two-thirds feel that more tourism would not improve the quality of life here.

The survey, which included 600 responses, was conducted as research for the city’s Whitefish Sustainable Tourism Management Plan currently being crafted.

The City of Whitefish last year created the tourism plan committee to write a plan that, organizers say, would find a balance in which tourism can continue to boost the economy, while creating a priority for community efforts to sustain and enhance the wellbeing of residents. The committee recently hosted a workshop, which drew more than 100 participants, to gather input on potential strategies that will likely be included.

Kate McMahon of Applied Communications and Lorraine Roach of the Hingston-Roach Group have been contracted by the city to assist in creating the tourism plan.

McMahon says the plan is expected to be ready for review by City Council at the beginning of 2020.

“The three key pillars that will underscore every strategy in the plan are community engagement, community character and livability,” she said.

There are five focus areas expected as part of the plan — housing and development, environment, economic diversification, tourism and transportation.

During the workshop at City Hall, about 75 people attended providing input regarding those focus areas. In small groups, participants provided input on what’s working in those areas, but also suggestions for improvement.

Under housing, several said that more affordable housing is needed, while protecting the character of current neighborhoods. For environment, a lack of recycling opportunities was an area that needs improvement.

In the category of economic diversity, one business owner said there’s not enough focus on assisting non-tourism businesses or those that are not located downtown. Other concerns were a lack of service workers for businesses that already exist.

Under tourism, one participant pointed out that the resort tax has provided funds for improvements such as street reconstruction, while others said that the city is still facing a need for infrastructure improvements that come from an influx of visitors and second-home owners. Other positives of the tourism industry were restaurants and entertainment, though some noted that it can be difficult to get a table at restaurants in the summer.

For transportation, participants suggested a need for more bike and pedestrian paths and public transportation opportunities. Several said the SNOW bus is great, but wanted service to be expanded.

Roach said the committee will be looking at input from the meeting, as well as, input gathered from previous stakeholder meetings to draft the tourism management plan.

“It’s important how all these things connect together,” she said. “It will be key in prioritizing strategies.”

The contract planners also presented data related to the focus areas.

While perceived overcrowding seems to be related to an influx of visitors particularly during peak visitation during July and August, data also shows that the population in Whitefish and Flathead County has been increasing.

Whitefish’s population grew from 6,257 in 2010 to 7,070 in 2017, or an increase of 11.2 percent. The county population grew from 90,928 to 102,106 or 12.3 percent. In that same time period, the Montana population only increased by 7.4 percent.

Roach said Whitefish does feel the impact of visitation, that’s not the only factor.

“Crowds are part of it through visitation, but part of it really is that there is just more people because of the increase in population,” Roach said.

Data presented showed information on the economic base of Whitefish for the 59937 ZIP code, which includes 955 businesses with one in four of those businesses being related to tourism, such as lodging, food, arts, recreation and entertainment. Plus another 196 business, such as transportation, also having some connection to tourism.

Lodging and food businesses make up 10% of the businesses in Whitefish, which is double the national average. Retail business is 11%, the same as the national average. In the category of professional, science and technology businesses, the national average is 13%, while Whitefish sits at 10%.

When it comes to where local dollars are being spent, however, about 80% of spending for general merchandise stores is leaving the community. More than 40% of purchases for building material and supplies and garden equipment are also being spent outside Whitefish.

Tracking lodging occupancy, their data shows that peak occupancy at hotels roughly June through September. When considering the entire year, occupancy at hotels is 50% or half empty from October to April.

Roach said 60% occupancy is considered break-even, so hotels here are relying on busy summer months to offset other times of the year.

Roach said the information related to what types of businesses are operating here, along with the services sought by residents is key in creating economic diversity.

“This is an opportunity for businesses to better understand their market,” she said. “They can look for ways to fill gaps and recapture dollars that are leaking out of the community.”

The city is working with the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau to create the plan.

For more information, visit the tourism plan committee on the city’s website at https://tinyurl.com/y5t3acm4.

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