WHITEFISH, Mont. - After working his $7-an-hour job at the Grouse Mountain Lodge, Jerry Wheeler doesn't hang out in this picturesque town in western Montana. He drives 20 miles south to a modest home on the outskirts of Kalispell, the mercantile center of the Flathead Valley.
Wheeler says he
is one of the few Grouse Mountain workers who owns a
"To buy a house you
would have to work two jobs or have a retirement check. And the
wife would also have to have a fairly decent job."
Wheeler says he pulled it off because he
receives retirement benefits for a 20-year stint in the Army. Even
so, he couldn't buy a home in Whitefish. At the new Iron Horse
development in town, 260 lots, from one-half acre to three acres in
size, range in price from $160,000 to $350,000. The house is
Driving the real-estate boom are throngs
of visitors who come to ski on stoop-shouldered Big Mountain, play
golf on a 36-hole golf course and make excursions into Glacier
National Park. On holiday weekends, the town's population can swell
from 4,500 to 30,000 people, as visitors hit the many bars,
restaurants and shops lining the two blocks of downtown's Central
Avenue. Many make return trips to the lodge or end up buying
vacation homes in the area, according to Grouse Mountain Lodge
manager Toby Slater.
"We get a
lot of prospective buyers staying here, looking for recreational
properties," " Slater says. "'We also get a lot of people moving
here who find they can run their businesses from their homes."
Once a small, unionized railroad and logging
town known as Stumpville, Whitefish now sees agricultural and
industrial economies giving way to tourism, retirement checks and
computer-linked businesses. With the economic changes have come
social changes. Besides the swelling ranks of well-to-do
immigrants, Generation Xers, formerly known as ski bums, flock here
in greater numbers every winter to operate the lifts, wait tables
and tend bar.
Not all newcomers stay. Some can't
take the gray skies and below-zero temperatures. Others find that
they can't make enough money to afford the high rents, let alone to
buy their own homes.
lost lots and lots of friends who couldn't make it here
financially," " says City Councilmember Jan Metzmaker. "One year,
90 kids came and went in the schools during one quarter. We still
have no affordable housing solution in Whitefish."
In many respects, Whitefish is headed down a
path already blazed by resort towns such as Aspen, Colo., and Park
City, Utah, where a low-paid service class serves an economic
Yet unlike officials in those
communities, which have well-developed planning regulations, city
leaders in Whitefish have only just begun to address zoning,
affordable housing and other issues related to the boom. And they
do so hesitantly, in the face of a citizenry inclined to let the
forces of the market run free.
A waged battle
sounds of discontent from those unhappy with the free market came
in the summer of 1997, when Jerry Wheeler and others tried to
organize Grouse Mountain Lodge workers. Local 427 of the Hotel
Employees and Restaurant Employees Union offered to sign a
neutrality agreement with the lodge, promising not to picket or
call for a boycott if the company agreed to negotiate a contract
should a majority of the 100-odd employees sign union
Despite the offer, things turned ugly.
Some union sympathizers registered as guests at the lodge and
plastered the place with pro-union stickers, while lodge managers
threatened and intimidated workers.
posted memos, managers replaced them with their own, and vice
versa. In the end, the National Labor Relations Board found that
the management had violated the workers' right to join or organize
a union 13 times. The charges included threatening retaliation if
the union went through.
Many residents and
business owners sympathized with those who earn low wages, but
waffled on the need for a union.
''If we had to
raise the minimum wage, I couldn't hire too many more people," one
small-business owner told me. "But the quality of the workers isn't
that good these days. A lot of Generation Xers don't want to work.
However, I wouldn't do too much myself for $5.25 an hour."
The Whitefish Journal, a now-defunct weekly,
published one story on the union effort, mainly from the union side
because company officials would not comment publicly on the matter.
Still, former editor Bob Berlin says, he "wouldn't go an extra mile
to report on the union. The subject's not important to the
community. There are not enough of them to make it a common issue."
In the beginning, about 30 lodge employees
took part in weekly organizational meetings, according to Wheeler.
Now, two years later, the effort has fizzled and only a couple of
pro-union workers remain at
"People moved on or
just got tired of fighting this thing," Wheeler says. "They just
more or less gave up." "
Pam Driscoll, who
worked at the lodge as a waitress for eight years, hasn't been
called back to work since her union activity. She says the National
Labor Review Board could find no proof that her union activity was
the reason why Grouse Mountain stopped giving her work. But in
June, Montana's Human Rights Bureau found that Driscoll has been
the subject of "unlawful discrimination," because of a foot injury
that prevented her from working for a time.
Driscoll maintains the company used the injury to push her out. "I
was a good employee - all my job reviews were good," she
Driscoll now attends Flathead Valley
Community College, studying to be a paralegal. The mother of two
says it's hard for service workers to improve their lot in
"We live in a used
mobile home," " she says. "We don't know how to get out of it. My
husband (a plumber) and I have never had health insurance. I don't
know how people survive, or how they can afford to buy homes."
Officials for the Hotel Employees and
Restaurant Employees Union Local 427 pledge to return, but they
will be fighting an uphill battle throughout the Flathead Valley,
which has at least 2,000 motels. The transient nature of many
workers in the region will always make unions a hard
Take, for instance, the Black Star Brewery
tasting room on Whitefish's Central Avenue, where every evening
young men and women who work the mountain resort congregate to
drink four free beers.
Here, Tom Dobson, a
snowboarder from Huntington, Vt., works as a ski lift operator,
earning minimum wage. But the fringe benefit of a season ski pass
more than makes up for it, he
"You snowboard as much
as you can," " he says. "I'm just having fun." "
From railroads to ski runs
Service workers and rich newcomers aren't the only people who live
in Whitefish. At the north end of town stand the railyards and the
grand Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad depot, a reminder of
Whitefish's blue-collar roots. Back in the 1970s, when the railyard
included a roundhouse and repair shop, the Burlington Northern
provided most of the town's revenue.
with fewer employees, the railroad's payroll still surpasses that
of the ski resort, thanks to the $40,000 to $50,000 a year its 300
Other Whitefish residents work
eight miles down the road in Columbia Falls, where the last timber
mill in the area is operated by the F.H. Stoltze Land and Timber
Co. Stoltze employs about 120 workers, who make about $12 an
In contrast, the Big Mountain Ski resort
pays most of its 475 workers $5.25 to $5.50 an hour, though
managers may earn $10 to $15 an hour. Still, the ski and golf
resort is the biggest economic engine in the community, bringing in
many of the visitors who fill the restaurants, shops and hotels, as
well as those who decide to stay and build their dream homes.
Skiing started out small. In 1937, when Big
Mountain was still a wilderness, a dozen local skiers formed the
Hell-Roaring Ski Club and built a small log cabin there. A decade
later, ski-club members, wearing coonskin caps and snowshoes, took
two entrepreneurs on a tour of the mountain. Ed Schenck and George
Prentice put $20,000 into Winter Sports Inc., and encouraged every
business in town to buy stock at $100 per share. On Dec. 14, 1947,
The Big Mountain opened for business.
the resort got national exposure when it hosted the National
Championship Ski Races, and the following year the first chairlift
began operating. In those years the resort was a one-man operation,
with Ed Schenck loading the lift, tending bar, patrolling the
slopes and plowing the road.
Fifty years later,
Winter Sports Inc." s fixed assets have grown to $20 million. In
1998, almost 300,000 skiers visited The Big Mountain, which boasts
a 2,500-foot vertical drop, 10 lifts and numerous restaurants,
shops and lodges.
The people attracted to the ski resort
have steadily transformed the surrounding landscape. Strung out
along the twisting road that climbs up to the resort sit
magnificent multi-storied homes half-hidden in the pine trees. At
some places, the structures are packed into condominium clusters
like small, high-rise cities. Many driveways are protected by
wrought-iron gates. They contrast sharply with the modest ranch
houses, log cabins and run-down shacks, with wood smoke often
rising from galvanized stovepipes, that still exist in pockets
along the main thoroughfare.
Steve Thompson, a
natural resource consultant who has lived in Whitefish for six
years, says land in the area that was once used in a naturally
sustainable manner by timber companies is now being sold because of
the poor market for lumber, putting the squeeze on open space and
see greater profitability nowadays in chopping up land for
development," " Thompson says.
The new, upscale
Iron Horse project, which Thompson can see from his back window
overlooking Whitefish Lake, sits on property once owned by F.H.
Stoltze Land and Timber Co. The company, which has operated in the
area since the late 1800s, still owns about 34,000 acres in the
"A lot of that land is
pretty accessible, within the viewshed and developable," " Thompson
said. "We need to keep Stoltze alive. If they shut down the mill,
we'll see more of the hillside developed." "
water quality of Whitefish Lake is diminishing because of the
development of waterfront "trophy'" homes. Sediment is flowing into
the lake from road building, plus the lake is experiencing nutrient
loading and septic contamination, according to researchers from the
University of Montana. Lake dwellers who have historically drawn
drinking water straight from the lake are now warned to treat it or
Wildlife also suffers. Development has
fragmented habitat for animals ranging from deer and elk to black
bears and grizzlies.
more people in winter range, there's less and less use by big game
animals," says Tim Thier, a state wildlife biologist.
Zoning: a dirty
Which raises the question: Will people want
to stay if development disfigures this
"You want to be
welcome and accepted and hope you're the last one who moves here,"
" says Ward McCartney, a former ski bum who has pushed hard for
zoning in the county. Yet as one of the first newcomers to build on
a 20-acre lot outside city limits in 1980, McCartney sees the irony
of his situation.
railroad worker was pissed that I was moving out of town (onto
land) where he hunted," " he says. "It didn't occur to me then why
he was so mad. But through the years, after a lot of land I took
for granted was gone, I could understand." "
1992-93, McCartney worked on county-wide zoning efforts with a
group called Citizens for a Better Flathead. Funded with $600,000
in mostly private funds, the Cooperative Planning Coalition held
public hearings in key Flathead communities including
Although "zoning" is a dirty word in
much of the rural West, McCartney found that most people who took
time to listen to the issues eventually realized that some building
restrictions could help protect their lifestyles and social
"We came up with a
really flexible plan," " McCartney says.
late in the process, a vocal minority stepped in to derail the
effort. "Montanans for Private Property Rights condemned the whole
thing," " McCartney says. "They were contentious, threatening and
rude at the hearings." "
In the end, Flathead
County voters rejected the plan.
Eating the scenery
ambivalent feelings residents and leaders have about issues
surrounding growth surfaced again in the recent battle over the
Iron Horse housing development in Whitefish.
Council member Jan Metzmaker attempted to get Iron Horse to include
some low-income housing tracts, but the company refused. "Where are
the workers going to live?" " she asks. "We can't even get
qualified teachers or administrators to come here, because they
can't afford to buy a home." "
Whitefish, Flathead County nor the state of Montana has laws to
force developers to build low-income housing, and Metzmaker was up
against fellow council members who didn't want to buck the
"Whitefish has much
more property to develop," " says councilman Don Nelson, who owns a
hardware store in town. "We're not constrained that way. I see some
continuing disparity among our citizens, but I don't know what to
do about it. The flow of economics needs to take care of that. Any
system formed to deal with that disparity never seems to be fair."
Nelson believes that the development of Iron
Horse will give the town a boost. After homes are constructed, new
residents will shop in area stores and hire people to clean their
homes and keep their lawns and gardens, he says.
The most incredible
As Whitefish continues to change, even
those prospering are nostalgic for the simpler times of the past.
Lael Gray, who came 22 years ago to ski The Big Mountain and has
since started a successful T-shirt company, misses talking to the
hoboes who once frequented Main Street in the summer and fondly
remembers when shopkeepers refrained from selling products other
stores carried. Councilmember Nelson misses the feeling of
community when everyone lived within town limits.
But there's a positive side, too, Nelson says.
"There's a lot of mixing between the old and new," " he says, and
that has brought new vitality to Whitefish.
Berlin, editor of the Whitefish Journal, says he's living in "the
most incredible town in the entire country. (We) do things by
community effort here rather than with tax levies," " he says.
"It's not a blue-collar town anymore. It is filled with people with
ideas who are able to make them become reality."
Some of the success stories over the last few
years include a new community center, a riverside park, an ice
arena and soccer fields - all built or improved with donated cash
and volunteer labor. Most of the money for the projects came from
local businessmen or people who run big businesses located out of
town, Berlin says.
But Jerry Wheeler wonders
what good all the amenities will do for his three sons if they are
forced to seek better-paying jobs outside the Flathead Valley,
maybe even out of
"There's a lot of money
in the valley," " he says, "but the workers aren't getting it. I
enjoy going to work. I just don't enjoy that ($213 weekly)
writes from Hot Springs, Montana.