“Whether you’re looking for a great place to raise a family, run a business, enjoy your retirement or simply take a well-deserved vacation, look no further – Whitefish, Montana has something for everyone.”
(Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, Community Guide, 2017)
I have always welcomed the challenge of experiencing cities as a resident or tourist to see if they can back-up such statements. I am happy to share in this case that my experience as a tourist brings me back each year to Whitefish, Montana. Maybe even one day as a resident enjoying retirement! I have observed in Whitefish, as I have in many cities, that the key ingredient to a memorable experience of a city is in the character and vibrancy of its downtown.
Montana holds a special place in my heart for its beauty, people interactions and homegrown experiences. In Whitefish, it's my annual vacations as a tourist, and in Bozeman, Montana it was as a resident for five years achieving my architecture degree at Montana State University. My natural affinity to Montanan cities began way back with the city I grew up in, Medicine Hat, Alberta and all the trips we took to Montana – we went south from the Hat or east to Saskatchewan rather than west to the big city. I had the pleasure of reconnecting with my hometown and experiencing the downtown as a resident some 25 years later in my six year role working in historic conservation and downtown and established community revitalization. Growing up, my time was spent in the downtown, as at that time there were no suburban malls for shopping and going to the movies, strip malls for doctor’s appointments or post offices located in drugstores. I came to appreciate the city’s history and people as we all interacted in the downtown and in that created and reinforced the downtown as a place of stories, memories, built character and vitality. For this reason, I have always been attracted to and chosen to live, work and recreate in the downtown or surrounding established communities. We all grew up in a hamlet, village, town, city or metropolis. Even if a living on a farm outside one of these, we were connected to the closest commercial core which in return has always provided our basic needs of interaction with others, commerce and vibrant unique places to create memories.
The desire to ensure character in the design of buildings, an inviting public realm and commercial and business vibrancy are the elements that continue to inspire my passion and commitment in understanding the historic evolution of a city’s downtown as a means to best contribute to its revitalization and continued economic success. I don’t think we ever want to take for granted when a downtown is successful, as we have all experienced the decades of when our downtowns struggled including many that continue to struggle. It is right to accept that they will naturally evolve physically and economically, including through times of ups and downs, yet it is important to prioritize taking care of and investing in the historic character and public realm and stimulating businesses and residential opportunities – basically an on-going strategy to enhance and respond to a downtowns needs.
My week of downtown observations from my most recent Whitefish trip reaffirmed three key elements of why I choose to live, work and vacation to such cities, therefore making the Chamber of Commerce’s further words below meaningful to my experience of the city.
“…our greatest natural resource is the people who live here. You’ll find them friendly, open and welcoming, and eager to share our special corner of the universe with others”.
The character in the built environment
“Founded at the turn of the 20th Century when the Great Northern Railway chose to put its northwest headquarters here…”
A vibrant and dynamic economy
“…modern-day Whitefish is an island of commerce and culture, surrounded by an open ocean of mountain recreation”.
Some may think that the Whitefish experience of Montana character and economic vitality is unique to places that have natural resources to stimulate the economy through tourism and the gift of being a “resort town” – defined as “an urban area where tourism or vacationing is the primary component of the local culture and economy” (Wikipedia). While this definitely does contribute to the vitality of the city’s downtown, these elements are all a part of and achievable for any cities downtown including a prairie city. Whitefish is a mountain and valley destination for skiing and outdoors recreation therefore, those living there value that asset. They invest in it such that in return it brings tourists to provide even more diversity and vibrancy. I however have experienced many cities that are destinations for people to come live and visit for reasons that the city itself capitalized on over the years. Medicine Hat is one of those that I will share in a future story. This brings me to the value I see in understanding a city’s history and its assets be it natural beauty, industry, arts and culture, or a simple pride in the history and people that built the city. They were all built with hardworking people who connected and evolved commerce and a quality of life to meet the needs of the time be it living, work or recreation. And they are all cities that now have something to tap into even if they feel they don't know what will help revitalize a potentially struggling downtown. When I hear people comment that their downtown doesn’t have the beauty or natural destination qualities to bring people to it, I am reminded of the words of Roger Brooks in his webinars on downtown successes, which are, “find a reason to become a destination”. With that commitment, every city’s downtown has something unique to offer. By taking a city’s downtown history, context, stories, and success and failures and what others have done successfully the potential is exciting to consider.
Whitefish's Successful Key Ingredients
Every visit to Whitefish reminds me of the commitment it takes over years to build and keep a downtown vibrant. And they have done it well, which is why this trip I was curious as to how they have achieved there welcoming and vibrant downtown. I read a lot of local newspapers and magazines when visiting there. Their magazine stories are so reflective of the people and vision they have for the city and surrounding area. To support this, they have those visions clearly supported in policy documents, design guidelines, processes and economic strategies. These are always evolving as each year I see new engagement sessions for a plan they are working on and implementation of the plans they have in place. Each of these plans reinforces the value of history and community character and how these elements contribute to their downtown success. I see a consistency in their vision and how they are implementing it.
It is obvious to me, and commendable to them, that my experience is the result of some key ingredients that they have truly been successful at in their downtown:
A beautiful and most enjoyable public realm
After observing and experiencing once again the public realm in the downtown this past trip, I decided to read their downtown and public realm plans. In the plans, I clearly saw why the public realm experience is fulfilling for everyone using it. The plans clearly state all the foundational elements necessary to ensure walkability for the pedestrian is prioritized. They have established the priority streets, including a loop to connect the streets to the open space system. The details impressed me as what I read is definitely what I experience which firstly is wide sidewalks – a minimum of 11 to 15 feet that no matter whether they are old or new buildings, a canopy is designed as a part of the building to cover the sidewalk for shade or rain and snow yet you still see and feel blue sky and sunshine. The experience is interesting as you walk along the sidewalk. There may be columns for the canopies, planters and commercial goods outside the store, more benches that one could imagine, and patio tables either beside a building or alongside the curb such that you have to sometimes step to one side or the other, yet it all works. You can still consistently walk down the street and have enough room to pass someone, which all comes back to the size of the sidewalk and the quality of the public realm features along the sidewalk. There are consistent designed benches along the sidewalk, mostly in the well-designed and landscaped corner bulb outs, while stores provide additional unique ones to add to the quantity for people to stop and relax as they stroll. And they are well used. A treat this trip was the interspersed artistic swing benches throughout the downtown that were fun to see and were placed as part of a future auction. The public realm plays a significant role in people wandering downtown Whitefish and into shops, or for a coffee or bite to eat. If not walking in nature, it’s pleasurable to simply walk around downtown and let your heart lead you to stop wherever.
Maintaining their historical character
This one doesn’t just applied to downtown, as I observe it having nicely spread throughout the city of Whitefish as one drives through the city and into the city from all directions. Where I see a commitment to the city’s historical character is solidly in its architecture. They truly have succeeded in determining the materials, the built-form, architectural style and detailing that reflects the landscape and cultural values of the area as it seamlessly integrates the urban with the natural. Each time I come to Whitefish I see new buildings in the downtown that each have their own unique identity yet integrate well with the existing historic and other new buildings in a manner that is not repetitive of style or materials. These leads me to the comfort that they have a good sense of their identity and character that is clearly supported with architectural and urban design guidelines that align and are implemented very well. A good example is my observation last year of a new commercial building that had represented a rustic Montana wood style at a key corner. At that same time, I noticed the beginning of the new City Hall and Civic Parkade across the street. Wondering at the time how it would integrate with the recent new build, I was happy to experience it’s completion this year. It is a beautiful brick two story building that fits in perfectly with the surrounding buildings including that covered sidewalk canopy around and integrated with the buildings architecture. The aspect I appreciate most is the architectural quality of the new and renovation developments that show a real commitment to implementing the design guidelines. The private developers seem to be achieving an impressive design quality in how they interface with the street and therefore, what they are contributing to the public realm experience. It is evolving and in a consistently good way visually.
An abundance of unique local businesses to keep the downtown user engaged
The mix of uses within the downtown always keeps me interested in wandering for the desire to enjoy a shop that I have come to like or a potential new local business that may have popped up in one of the new buildings. Local businesses are the key to getting people continually using the downtown. The variety of shops, and yes some touristy but not over the top is most welcoming. Home décor, an old hardware store, clothing stores that have local and/or unique items, unique jewelry and gift stores, a grocery store, wine store, outdoor clothing and shoe store, galleries, and the list goes on in support of them all being local. Each store provides something interesting that causes you to walk into it even if you don’t think its one you would. For me its curiosity at its finest as I amazingly discovered an antique store that had been there but I had missed over the years. To balance the commercial there are offices, all above grade on the main pedestrian shopping streets, and a really great variety of restaurants, coffee shops and places to stop for a drink or something to eat. Fine dining, ice cream, coffee, unique sandwich shops, crepes, a few brewery type places and of course the long time traditional ones like Bulldogs where we always get a great burger and take in some sports or running into people we may or may not know from afar. A couple of years ago I enjoyed my first trip to the Stumptown Market which is a building that has artisan’s booths and two local food places to enjoy. The message is that they are interesting and offer diversity of both needed services and local interest businesses and at a minimum the restaurants and some of the coffee shops are open into the evenings.
A well-programmed park that draws residents and tourist’s downtown
It’s now a tradition to not miss walking through the weekly Tuesday night Farmers Market in Depot Park across from the historic train station. This park and its events, such as the market, bring locals to the downtown weekly and provide opportunities for tourists to enjoy Whitefish’s homegrown foods, music, crafts, local produce and food trucks. All these activities activating this anchor park at the end of their pedestrian shopping and entertainment street – Central Avenue. It is a nice tie into the historic, and still well used, pedestrian and freight train station. It is the only significant open space in the core of the downtown and is nicely framed with a cultural arts centre, the train station and quaint office building.
An obvious commitment to economic strategies
It’s not so obvious how all the key ingredients for downtown Whitefish’s economic success is achieved but for me its exciting to know it is being achieved in the sheer fact that on all the key pedestrian shopping streets in the downtown I never see vacant window fronts. In fact a long time local shop that I loved wandering into, and always walked out with something, was closed this trip. I kept walking by the area thinking what happened to it as the location and welcoming door is what always drew me in and I couldn’t imagine it not being there. Upon continuing to figure it out I realized the door entrance had changed in that spot. It was actually gone and had been replaced with a new art gallery and shop. Totally different welcoming entrances and inside design that I admit stumped me for a bit while caused me to reflect again on the success of integrating change such that one would never know there had been a change to a continued street of uses. For whatever reasons that shop closed, the space didn’t sit open before I was now experiencing a new one with the same local quality and character as the last one. I have known that Whitefish has a resort sales tax, which I suspect plays a big role in quality of the public realm, but upon reading their Whitefish Downtown Business District Master Plan, I realized that they have many other incentives, such as tax increment financing, that that they use to achieve the downtowns successes. I was actually most impressed that their Plan, along with the usual planning, transportation, open space and design criteria, is actually more of a business plan with strategies that I am grateful are obviously being well-implemented.
Each trip to Whitefish has me reading their local magazines and newspapers on living, historical stories, development and local business happenings which all reflect a quality of living that they are proud of and want to share. This doesn’t go without saying that you also learn through your reading that they have, like many cities, the issues of affordability when you seek to achieve higher quality in your architecture and public realm and land value increases. This again a reminder to always be mindful of the decisions being made for the downtown such that they ensure the balance of character, quality, and economic success will still include the diversity of people and economic scenarios.
This may sound like it wasn’t a vacation for me but truly it was a great vacation week as I naturally integrated my relaxed tourist time with my professional passion of experiencing and observing the city’s in each day’s experience. For that I am always grateful, as it's the life-long learner and implementer in me that desires to learn and apply my city experiences to building the best downtown and city experience in my consulting work. At heart, I am a small town gal, with amazing professional and personal experiences, that contribute to my passion of connecting with the history of a place, its people and together building special places for us all to experience.
In closing, I share a postcard that I picked up in a really great local bookstore, another store that I seemed to have missed all these years! It reflects the sense of humour Montanans have of themselves yet it isn’t that far from the truth of the value of the “outhouse” as a Think Tank or in my case a similar photo of me in a moment of relax and reflection. The postcard reminded me of a 32-year-old photo of me taken back in my architecture school days in Bozeman. I took an architecture history class on 17th Century Stone-Enders – what they were and how to build one in the mountains outside Bozeman using the tools of the time including the outhouse I was sitting in. This photo was captured without me knowing that a friend took it…it reflects a relaxed, reflective and, as he said, “timeless” photo. That reflection and observation hasn’t changed all these years and for that I am truly grateful as in it I find daily personal and professional inspiration.
For more about Whitefish do take a read of their Community Guide and make a trip there to experience it for yourself.