Requiem for a messy small town

 

I live in one of those Western towns that’s booming. Fast and furious. Set near a national park, surrounded by 2.3 million acres of national forest, and right at the base of a ski resort, Whitefish, Mont., lures not only visitors but also the affluent who want to buy into the Montana lifestyle. Ironically, newcomers claim they don’t want to change the feel of town, but they do change it, just by virtue of money: They’ve got lots.

Moneyed growth is a two-edged sword. While no one — not even newcomers — wants to change the town’s personality, it slowly alters anyway… brick by brick, streetlight by streetlight, gated community by gated community. Growth breeds unfamiliarity.

"Whitefish is not as chummy as it was 10 years ago," says Pete Costain, an avid mountain biker and backcountry skier. "A big loss is recreational access. You used to be able to go right out your back door."

Meanwhile, the new people aren’t building the local economy. Montana ranks dead last in average annual income compared to other states. Folks moving in bring their jobs with them, or they are pleasantly retired and investing prior earnings. In the case of second-third- or fourth-homeowners, they fly in for a month while a business elsewhere racks up the bucks.

Perhaps that’s why the word "newcomer" has sunk into derogatory language. Locals are cool, newcomers are not. Locals drive gas-efficient rigs, newcomers don’t. Locals like open spaces, newcomers want to develop raw land. But no one really knows when one becomes a local. Is it 10 years, 20 years, or more? One hundred years ago, everyone in town was a newcomer. Today, how long you’ve lived in Whitefish seems to define the value of what comes out of your mouth.

Just 10 years ago, Whitefish streets held potholes that we joked rivaled the Mariana Trench, the deepest location on earth. Our cars got flat tires, if not damaged axles. Parents in town had to drive their kids to school because there were no safe bike lanes. Financially, Whitefish was hardly in a position to consider building a swimming pool. To repair some of the local streets, the town instituted a 2 percent resort tax in 1996. While Montana has no sales tax, Whitefish does, because so many visitors use its parks, streets and services.

Since then, rolling pastures have evolved into housing complexes and hillsides into manicured gated communities. Dot-com billionaires erected million-dollar second homes. One home even boasts 32,000-square-feet and its own trestle over the train tracks. Growth is happening so fast that in one year — 2004 — the median sale price of a house jumped from $190,000 to $260,000, and that’s just within the city limits. Along with the influx of newcomers, parking downtown has become scarce, inexpensive houses for those holding down $7-per-hour jobs are dinosaurs, and skyrocketing property taxes boot older folks out of homes they’ve been in for decades. This probably sounds like old news to people living in Park City, Utah, Vail, Colo., or Sun Valley, Idaho.

At the same time, new money has brought amenities to this town, thanks to the city’s resort tax. The potholes are gone, and the leafy streets of Whitefish sport bike lanes and historic-looking street lamps, something June Cleaver could be proud of.

Currently, Whitefish is building bicycle and walking trails to connect neighborhoods. The town has helped fund an athletic facility, a theater center, a much desired swimming pool and a skateboard park. It is also helping to acquire a bike trail outside city limits to link outlying neighborhoods and open spaces.

When tax dollars fail to cover all the expenses, donations fill in the gaps. The big money donations don’t come from minimum-wage job holders; they come from newcomers with money. But by adding all these amenities, we’ve lost some of the devil-may-care personality that was obvious in the town’s once untamed streets. Now, money is shaping the town, and in a bittersweet way. It takes away open space with one hand; it gives the community gifts with the other.

Becky Lomax is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Whitefish, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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