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City Council approves sustainable tourism management plan

by HEIDI DESCH
Whitefish Pilot | September 30, 2020 1:00 AM

Whitefish has had great success attracting visitors to town, but that has also brought up concerns about how best to manage the growing number of visitors who come here.

Based upon this idea, the City of Whitefish and the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau partnered together to create the Whitefish Sustainable Tourism Management Plan. Council last week adopted the plan following several years of work.

Lauren Oscilowski, who chaired the tourism management plan committee, said the biggest takeaway from working on the plan is that a strong and sustainable tourism economy touches all facets of the community and economic sectors.

“There is not one single answer to addressing sustainable tourism,” she said. “This is a complex plan that provides a lot of data and implementation action items.”

Oscilowski said the plan has sparked some good discussions and it is important for the committee who created the plan to keep working on the action items in it.

“In our eyes this is a two part process,” she said. “The first is the data collection and digging in to what sustainable tourism means and identifying the sections of our community that it intersects with. Then the second step would be prioritizing the action items that are outlined in the plan and beginning the work of implementing them.”

The plan points out that a previous resident survey showed concerns in the community related to housing prices, traffic, infrastructure and community character related to tourism.

But while residents identified challenges, they also recognized benefits that come with the tourism economy.

Nonresident visitors contributed $614 million to the regional economy in Flathead County in 2018, the plan notes and each year skiers at Whitefish Mountain Resort contribute $12.1 million and Whitefish Trail visitors contribute $6.4 million in spending.

The plan, however, also notes that visitation only accounts for a portion of the increase in summer crowds. Whitefish experienced a 3% annual average population growth since 2010, while the county has experienced an annual average growth rate of 2% per year.

“There is concern that too much visitation will diminish the quality of life that the community values, and that visitors find so attractive,” the plan says. “The purpose of this plan is to promote sustainable community-based tourism development that is beneficial to community members, employees and visitors.”

The plan is structured around three pillars that underlie the plans recommendations — community character, livability and community engagement.

Councilor Andy Feury, who served on the committee that created the document, said the plan includes data that serve the next steps of the committee’s work to implement suggestions in the plan.

“This is targeted to give our visitors the best possible experience and reduce the impact on the people who actually live here on a daily basis,” he said. “So we can all benefit from the economics of tourism and we can all not get sick of it.”

The plan includes five focus ares — housing and development, environment, economic diversification, tourism and transportation. The plan says the focus areas are identified to provide an organizational framework for addressing priority issues.

The plan outlines several high priority, issue-oriented actions.

For short-term rentals, it suggests enforcemet, education, zoning for parking and providing incentives for long-term rentals.

For recycling, it suggests expanding opportunities for recycling, providing support for local recycling businesses and reducing overall waste.

In the category of funding, it suggests outreach to the Montana Legislature to secure funding for various programs in the 2021 session.

For wildfires, it suggests emergency preparedness, education, outreach, coordination and firesafe best practices.

Under transportation, it suggests transit, park-n-ride, employee parking permits, bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

The plan also outlines some high priority “capacity building” actions.

These include education and outreach to tourists to encourage low impact travel practices, but also educating community members aimed at improving some of the areas of concern.

For example, the plan suggests local education that would encourage more walking and biking, and carpooling to help reduce traffic.

Feury said particularly coming off of a summer when many visitors have come to Whitefish for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic that the education component seems necessary.

“It’s important for our tourists and our people that work in our service industry that can help pass that education on,” he said. “We do have a different group of people coming here.”

In 2017, Council and the WCVB met to discuss developing a tourism plan and the following year a steering committee was established to develop a long-term plan to provide assurances that “community-based economic development, promotion and conservation are beneficial to all.”

The city and WCVB contracted with Applied Communications and Hingston Roach Group last year to collect data, facilitate public meetings and meet with stakeholder groups in developing the plan.

Council last week also approved extending the committee tenure to move the plan forward by working on identified action items in the plan and addressing the impacts of COVID-19 on Whitefish’s tourism economy.

The tourism plan can be viewed at https://tinyurl.com/y3pwkqxu