Sunday, September 26, 2021

For the economic health of Whitefish

| August 25, 2021 1:00 AM

In 1947, my grandparents Wilfred and Ruth Nelson started Nelson’s Hardware. As the Whitefish community grew, so did our business. I am truly grateful to our community for the privilege of running my family’s business for the third generation.

Having grown up in Whitefish and now raising a young child with my husband, I started to look for more ways I could give back to my community. I recently worked with other community members to create the Sustainable Tourism Management Plan and now serve as the board chair for Explore Whitefish (Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau), having served on the board for the past five years.

I wanted to seek ways to help preserve a stratified and vibrant community. Whitefish should be a place where young families can comfortably live and not just be a place for those who can “afford” it. Sustainable tourism overlaps with so many of the issues of the moment: affordable housing, affordable childcare, good schools, and protecting the precious resources that surround us.

While we currently have the perfect storm happening here between a surge of new residents during the pandemic, increased visitation with an interest in the outdoors, affordable housing issues, short-term rental problems, etc. and etc… people often forget that business here was not always so strong. Not very long ago, many businesses had to close in the shoulder seasons, laying off workers.

Whitefish has carved its own path before. The downtown master plan grew out of discussions that began in 1988 and it took almost 20 years to finally bring it to fruition, calling out projects like a parking garage and Central Avenue improvements. This was after our two main economic drivers, the timber industry and the railroad, greatly contracted at the same time. As a community, we strived to find a different way forward to keep our community alive.

In the midst of this new storm, Explore Whitefish has been moving in the direction of destination stewardship for several years now. Standard “promotion” is a bygone activity as we work to actively manage visitors in the areas of responsible recreation and community values — asking travelers to take care of our town rather than just using it.

Many people do not have a clear understanding of the detailed work that goes into tourism management and how much careful thought goes into the “marketing” of our town. Marketing Whitefish is mostly now about education and inspiring visitors to travel to Whitefish in the shoulder seasons because they inherently share the values we have as a community. Campaigns like the “Friend of the Fish” would never exist without this work.

We never could have planned for the past 18 months. Just because we are in the middle of a hurricane we need to be careful not to have knee-jerk reactions. A measured, logical response will be most beneficial for the health of Whitefish in the long term. Let’s be thoughtful about all the complex pieces.

Whitefish, even with our issues, is still where many of us want to be. We continue to be a community that is full of opportunity rather than feeling the effects of a dying industry. We need to take bold steps, work together with kindness even when we disagree, and drive an upswell of community involvement in our future as we work to find the right balance. That is the duty of everyone who calls Whitefish home.

Mariah Joos is an owner of Nelson’s Hardware and the board chair of Explore Whitefish.