Debate around the proposed Mountain Gateway project north of Whitefish has sparked new interest about where and how future growth should occur in the Flathead. That’s not a debate many communities in the West and especially small towns are having as they would love growth.
Perhaps not any, but at least some growth since tens of millions of people left rural communities in the second-half of the 20th century and continue to lose younger people to larger cities. With them go employment, business, a tax base and eventually hope. In Montana 18 counties had growth rates at or below 0% between 2010 and 2020, with only 3 experiencing 20% or more. Flathead was in the 10-20% range. Bozeman joined four other micro areas to be the fastest-growing in the US.
According to Brookings, some small towns, exurbs and micro areas did experience growth during the Covid pandemic, as we’ve certainly experienced here in Montana (especially Kalispell and Helena). This growth however was typically for permanent family relocations where residence, employment, education and related family needs are met and people serve. In contrast, the Flathead continues to see growth in largely the vacation home market.
In addition to infrastructure, density, and municipal services questions lies the issue of affordable and workforce housing. Only Whitefish is making a genuine effort at implementing policies that actually might expand some affordable housing while the county overall is in crisis.
The July 2021 residential market statistics report showed that residential sales over July 2020 were up 175% in Lakeside (with a median sales price of $1,120,000), 51% in Columbia Falls (median price of $575,400), 37% in Kalispell (median price of $445,000) and 5% in Bigfork and Whitefish (with median prices of $620,000 and $575,000 respectively).
Can any of our children afford this? It’s time to rethink our future.
Pat Malone, Columbia Falls