2020 Rewind

by HEIDI DESCH
Editor | January 6, 2021 1:00 AM

A look back at the top stories of 2020.

COVID-19

The virus became the topic of news and conversations both locally and beyond.

The COVID-19 virus began in Wuhan, China and spread around the world with major cities being the first to report the virus in the United States before it continued to spread to rural states like Montana. Flathead County recorded 56 deaths from the virus last year.

The impacts of the virus hit here in earnest in mid March when Gov. Steve Bullock announced the closure of public schools and declared a state of emergency for the state, and later would issue a stay-at-home order. At the same time, Whitefish City Hall closed to the public and canceled all meetings before later implementing remote meetings.

Whitefish Mountain Resort was forced to close early on March 15 rather than its scheduled season end of April 5 as concerns around the virus increased. Numerous events normally held here were either canceled or modified as a result of the virus.

The Whitefish School District spent the spring months providing lessons online with remote learning, and then in the fall moved to a hybrid learning model of both in-person and remote learning.

While business seemed to rebound somewhat during the summer months, a survey of Whitefish business owners found an estimated revenue loss of $732,000 per day in March compared to the prior year. Regulations continued to force businesses to modify operations throughout the year as a result of health guidelines.

By year’s end the vaccine for the virus had reached Flathead County, just a few weeks ago North Valley Hospital received its first 400 doses of the vaccine holding its first vaccination clinics for healthcare workers with the highest risk of exposure. Healthcare workers are the first to get the vaccine and more vaccinations are planned in the coming months of 2021.

Demonstrations

Demonstrators showing support of the Black Lives Matter movement began standing in downtown Whitefish in the summer. The movement gained global momentum after the officer-involved killing of George Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis.

The local demonstrations made national headlines when a man became confrontational with a woman during one of the events and a video of the incident went viral.

In late summer, Black Lives Matter demonstrators and supporters of President Trump both gathered at the intersection outside City Hall. While groups remained largely civil, some attendees reported individuals shouting at one another and verbal threats or aggressive behavior being lobbed from both sides.

Muldown Elementary School

A brand new Muldown Elementary School was celebrated in late August with the completion of the $26.5 million new school building. Due to the restrictions on gatherings, a small ceremony and ribbon cutting was held for the school building prior to students beginning the school year.

The old elementary school suffered from a number of infrastructure issues and had become overcrowded leading the school district to seek a bond from voters to construct the new school.

The new two-story elementary school is designed with pods for different grade levels and includes a gymnasium big enough for the whole school to gather for assemblies, something that wasn’t possible at the old school building.

Workforce Housing

Whitefish made little headway in adding deed-restricted affordable workforce housing this year. A report released in the fall by the City of Whitefish showed that in the first year of the city’s Legacy Homes Program only one project was approved that may result in affordable housing for the town. The program requires most new residential development to provide 20% of units as deed restricted affordable housing.

A needs assessment showed that Whitefish needed 1,000 new housing units by the end of 2020 to keep up with demand, and while the city had added about 800 units very few of those are deed-restricted as affordable housing.

Early in the year and following strong opposition from neighbors of the project, City Council rejected the first proposal to come before it under the city’s Legacy Homes Program. Council voted against a request to construct 36 apartments some deed-restricted as affordable near the new Muldown Elementary School. Those in opposition to the project said it would add too much traffic in an already congested area and it was too dense to fit the neighborhood.

The property is now being developed with 14 condominium units with none of the units deed-restricted as affordable.

A project that will likely result in affordable housing took a step forward this year as the city transferred ownership of its snow lot to the Whitefish Housing Authority to allow for development of an affordable workforce housing project on the lot. The study found that roughly 24 single-family duplex-style homes could be constructed on the site.

Rural fire district

Residents living in the Whitefish Fire Service Area filled the rural fire hall during meetings over several months time after learning that the rural fire board was considering a move to operate its own volunteer fire department. Residents admittedly opposed the move saying they wanted to continue their fire service through the Whitefish Fire Department.

By years end, City Council and the rural board reached a new contract agreement that has Whitefish Fire providing service to the rural district for a period of at least three years and up to five years before renegotiating the contract.

Good news

North Valley Food Bank saw an overwhelming response from the community when it quickly needed to provide food to an increasing number of families as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many restaurants donated food and meals, and residents stepped up with donations throughout the year.

The Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, Whitefish Housing Authority, and Whitefish Community Foundation came together to create an emergency rental assistance fund providing assistance to more than 250 renters.

The Whitefish Community Foundation stepped up amid the pandemic creating a Community Emergency Response Fund giving away 25 grants totaling $254,000. Its Day of Giving and Unity also raised more than $561,000 for 78 local charities, and its annual Great Fish Community Challenge raised $3.2 million for 56 local charities in a year when many nonprofits were forced to cancel fundraisers and also worked to provide extra services.

Creativity in the arts scene has come as a result of the pandemic.

Alpine Theatre Project created a full-length movie musical of its high school production of “Young Frankenstein” rehearsed and recorded entirely with its 18 cast members in isolation.

Three Whitefish creators combined forces to create a virtual musical called “Your Musical is Canceled: The Musical!” The project brought together several actors, singers and musicians to produce a musical that takes a humorous look at the fate of theater companies in the wake of the pandemic.

Two Whitefish High School graduates made headlines as they worked on projects connected with the COVID-19 virus. Myndi Holbrook works at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton and was part of the research team focusing on COVID-19. Dr. Collin Fields working at Kaiser Permanente in Seattle was part of research efforts to develop a vaccine for the virus.

The city completed a multi-phase project to reconstruct Depot Park downtown. The cost of improvements totaled about $2.7 million and was paid for by tax increment finance funds.

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Whitefish Community Foundation board members and staff announce the total of more than $3.2 million awarded to nonprofits for the 2020 Great Fish Community Challenge. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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The City of Whitefish recently completed a multi-phase project to reconstruct Depot Park in downtown. The cost of improvements totaled about $2.7 million and was paid for by tax increment finance funds. The park plays hosts to about 10 major events and many smaller events throughout the year. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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Supporters of Republican President Donald Trump, supporters of presidential candidate Democrat Joe Biden, along with those showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement stand near each other at the corner of Second Street and Baker Avenue on Monday, Aug. 24. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)