Low-paid service workers get squeezed in a booming Montana resort town

  • Whitefish, Montana

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • PRO-UNION: Jerry Wheeler at the Grouse Mountain Lodge

    Mark Matthews photo
  • Steve Thompson's once forested view now includes housing development

    Mark Matthews
  • CHANGING SCENERY: The Whitefish rail yard

    Mark Matthews photo
  • RESORT LIFE: Skiing at the Big Mountain

    photo courtesy The Big Mtn., Montana
  • Shopping for T-shirts on Central Ave. in Whitefish

    Mark Matthews photo

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 home.

"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 extra.

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.

"I have 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 elite.

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

The loudest 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 cards.

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.

When 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 Grouse.

"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 says.

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 Whitefish.

"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 sell.

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 says.

"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.

Today, even 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 workers earn.

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 hour.

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.

In 1949, 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.

Altered terrain

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 wildlife.

"Timber companies 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 area.

"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."

The 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 boil it.

Wildlife also suffers. Development has fragmented habitat for animals ranging from deer and elk to black bears and grizzlies.

"With 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 word

Which raises the question: Will people want to stay if development disfigures this wonderland?

"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.

"An old 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."

In 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 Whitefish.

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 values.

"We came up with a really flexible plan," McCartney says.

But 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

The 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."

But neither 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 system.

"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 town

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. Council member 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.

Bob 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 state.

"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) paycheck."

Mark Matthews writes from Hot Springs, Montana.

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