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Year in Review: Recapping major Whitefish news in 2023

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | January 3, 2024 1:00 AM

In 2023, the community of Whitefish persevered and overcame obstacles together and alone. Whitefish began to tackle its housing crisis with the approval of developments and work done by committees and nonprofits. Groups found ways to donate money and time to those in need, while individuals continued to shine in unique and exciting ways. Below are a few of the highlights or moments that stand out from the last year.


Housing 

Whitefish kicked off its new Growth Policy, Vision Whitefish 2045, by inviting the public to join in the process. A growth policy is intended to be a guide for making decisions about the city’s future and one of the policy’s goals is to consider how to ensure adequate housing.

The Whitefish City Council approved several housing projects in 2023. 

In June, the Whitefish Corridor Community, a 146-unit apartment complex to be located between Texas Avenue and Colorado Avenue north of Edgewood Place was approved. Forty-four of the units will be deed-restricted for affordability. The project is proposed by Ruis Texco LLC which is owned by Columbia Falls developer Mick Ruis. 

In November, developer Alberto Valner got the green light for his project called Alpine 93/40. The project is located on about 10 acres east of U.S. Highway 93 and south of Montana 40. The development includes 210 residential apartment units and no more than 15,000 square feet of commercial space. Ten percent of the units will be deed-restricted and Valner agreed to offer a discount to local businesses on the market rate units.

The council voted unanimously to approve a zone change and planned unit development for two parcels on Edgewood Place to develop 42 multi-family dwelling units in two buildings on the 1.66 acres. Eight of the units will be deed-restricted. One building is located along the northern property line and will have 26 units while the other is situated to the east with 16 units. 

In the November election, voters approved a reallocation of the resort tax to support community housing. Ten percent of the 3% resort tax funds will be designated specifically for community housing development projects and programs. The reallocation will begin in February 2025, after the Haskill Basin Conservation Easement bond is paid off at the end of January 2025.

Explore Whitefish reallocated funding to support Housing Whitefish in a more significant way, doubling its support for affordable housing initiatives.

In December, Explore Whitefish penned a check to Housing Whitefish for $52,012, the first increased Community Sustainability Fund allocation for housing. The fund is the 1% voluntary assessment that Explore Whitefish manages from revenues collected at member restaurants, hotels and transportation companies. Fifty percent of the funds collected at member restaurants now support affordable workforce housing.   

The Whitefish City Council pledged its support for the new Whitefish Workforce Assistance Program and, shortly thereafter, was pleased to learn that local businesses were stepping up to help. 

The city committed to contributing $200,000 to the program, and the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce and the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau (Explore Whitefish) each contributed $25,000.

The goal of the program is to help full-time employees successfully live and work in the Whitefish area by providing rental assistance to retain housing or to get into rental units.


New faces 

In January, Dwarne Hawkins became the new executive director of the Whitefish Housing Authority (WHA). Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Hawkins worked for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. Later, Hawkins worked with the Housing Authority in East St. Louis.

“We try our best to do what is necessary to put more of a dent into homelessness, put more of a dent into poverty,” Hawkins said in an interview with the Pilot. “It is technically the Housing Authority that is that transition – it’s almost like a gateway to upward mobility.

“We have our hands in a lot but we're just trying to help the system to be better,” Hawkins added. “We’re in it for the well-being of the community we’re in.”

In April, Julie Mullins took the helm of Explore Whitefish, also known as the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau (WCVB). Mullins brought over 30 years of hotel and destination management experience to the job, including 15 years with Choose Chicago, the Chicago CVB.

“I want to hear from the residents to understand what are the real pain points and then really throw our focus,” Mullins told the Pilot. “If it is affordable housing then how do we work as a community to provide more affordable housing which then can help us with our mission.”

Whitefish hired Cole Hadley to be the new Fire Chief. The department’s previous chief, Joe Page, retired in the summer and Hadley began his new position in September. Hadley has been with the Whitefish Fire Department since 2009. He served as a captain for six years and as the union president for the last seven. 

“It’s great to be able to be born and raised in the valley and then be able to continue to move up through this department to the chief position,” Hadley said in September. “This is my home. This is the community that I've worked in the longest, here in Whitefish, so I have some really strong ties to this community and to the valley as a whole.”

In November, the Whitefish Community Foundation named Alan Davis as its new president and CEO. Davis joined the foundation after working with Whitefish Legacy Partners, where he led that organization’s fundraising efforts to build and maintain the Whitefish Trail since 2015. He succeeded Linda Engh-Grady, who retired at the end of 2022.

“I am excited to work with all of our community donors and nonprofits to increase their impact, especially during a time when rapid growth is creating gaps in our community's most basic needs,” Davis told the Daily Inter Lake.


Continuing efforts

Former Big Mountain ski patroller and Whitefish resident, Gary Cabell, inspired a band of people to get together and help make his life easier. Cabell lived for years without running water but medical issues last year affected his ability to haul water. Due to his physical limitations, his home needed improvements and he needed a bit of help with medical bills.

The call for assistance went out and helping hands showed up. Their efforts not only brought running water to Cabell’s cabin, but they assisted with other basic needs like stacking wood, shoveling snow and keeping his stairs clear. A GoFundMe campaign was also established for Cabell. 

“It’s pretty fun now. Shower, use the toilet and do the dishes, you know, I mean, a lot has changed,” Cabell said last spring when asked about getting used to his new plumbing. “It feels good. I think that when you don’t have all the necessities, you learn to adapt and your appreciation value changes a lot. And I'm really appreciating this.”

Early in the summer, DREAM Adaptive Recreation and Flathead Area Mountain Bikers (FAMB) teamed up to make trails rideable for a wider range of the mountain biking community.

The two organizations refreshed Otter Pop, one of the most popular trails on Spencer Mountain north of Whitefish, making it wide enough to handle three-wheeled bikes.

“It's exciting to do any of these projects but it's even more exciting when leaders of other organizations grasp onto what we’re trying to do and you can tell it's in their heart,” said DREAM Executive Director Julie Tickle of working with FAMB. “They are not just going through the motions.”

“DREAM has not asked us to make the trail easier. That is not the intention,” said Ron Brandt, executive director of FAMB. “You can make the trail work for everyone and it doesn’t negatively affect the experience for two-wheeled bikes.”

Whitefish Legacy Partners enjoyed another successful Whitefish Trail Hootenanny in 2023 and the nonprofit continues its work to ensure conservation, recreation and education on the lands around Whitefish for future generations.

Whitefish Legacy Partners worked with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to make improvements to the Smith Lake area, including a dock, a viewing platform and a bench. They also rebuilt the trail that leads to the south end of the lake. The trail is more sustainable, will experience less erosion, and features crib steps, which are easier for people to use.

On July 29, a human-caused fire was sparked by equipment in a dry hayfield north of Delrey Road and spread into forested areas of the Stillwater State Forest. Fire crews were quick to jump on the wildfire with a heavy aerial and ground attack that knocked down the initial blaze that evening. 

The fire was initially detected by the Werner Peak Lookout. Aerial support was dispatched, including Type 1, 2 and 3 helicopters. Five engines, two water tenders, a hand crew and hotshot crew also assisted. No evacuations were issued.


Schools

Voters turned down a $33.7 million bond issue put forward by the Whitefish School District that would have funded an expansion of the high school and its athletic facilities. The measure failed 2,313 to 2,161. 

About $22.1 million of the bond would have gone toward adding classrooms, shops and labs to the high school. The remaining $11.6 million would have funded the construction of an athletic complex for the high school. The school district now is back to the drawing board, considering ways to handle the increasing enrollment at the high school and figuring out the next steps to present another bond for the high school expansion.

The Whitefish High School music department saw a record number of musicians earn all-state honors. In addition to sophomore alto Scarlet Burke, an all-state honoree, seven students from grades 7-12 in WHS choir director Sky Thoreson’s choirs were selected for the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) All-Northwest Honor Choirs.


    Fire Chief Cole Hadley started his new position with the Whitefish Fire Department on Aug. 28. (Julie Engler/Whitefish Pilot)
 
 
    Julie Tickle, Executive Director of DREAM Adaptive Recreation rides Otter Pop, a trail on Spencer Mountain, last week. (Julie Engler/Whitefish Pilot)
 
 
    Gary Cabell and Jesse Miller at Cabell's cabin with new ramp and improved parking area. (Photo provided)
 
 
    An overview of the proposed Alpine 93/40 development south of Whitefish.