Flathead On the Move – Understanding growth and the economy in Whitefish

Flathead on the Move, an informal citizen’s group, has been bringing diverse interests together in the Flathead Valley for the last few months to find ways of understanding and benefiting from growth and changes in the local economy.

Growth itself was the catalyst for the group’s formation.

Whitefish Pilot

In May of 2003, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Center for the Rocky Mountain West (CRMW), a public policy center based out of the University of Montana, put out Gateway to Glacier, a synthesis of three studies on the Flathead Valley economy and its relationship to Glacier National Park.

Liz Harris, president of the Kalispell-based economic development organization Jobs No Inc., has been active in Flathead on the Move.

According to Harris, information in the study helped people understand how national trends have brought growth and change to the Flathead Valley.

"People are taking their jobs to where they want to be," Harris said. "They figure out where they want to live, and find a way to make a living."

Because of natural amenities like Glacier National Park, Big Mountain and Flathead Lake, the Flathead Valley has become one of those places where people want to take their jobs to.

Similar situations exist in communities centered around Missoula, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Billings and Butte. According to CRMW economist Larry Swanson, 90 percent of economic and population growth in Montana has taken place around these seven communities.

The CRMW saw that these seven communities were heading in a different direction than much of Montana. They began the "On the Move" project as a way of providing accurate information on these changing economies and bringing communities together to find ways of guiding change.

Flathead on the Move has brought together a wide variety of groups and people in the Flathead, including Flathead County commissioner Gary Hall, Whitefish mayor Andy Feury, Kalispell Mayor Pam Kennedy, the Whitefish, Kalispell, Lakeside-Somers and Columbia Falls chambers of commerece, Flathead Valley Community College, Montanans for Multiple Use, Jobs Now Inc. and the National Parks Conservation Association.

Three seminars were given by CRMW in September and November to provide information to the community. According to Harris, about 150 people attended each of the last two meetings. They have now broken up into several smaller groups which will study and discuss specific issues, then report back to the main group early next year.

The groups will discuss issues like growth policies, infrastructure, education and communication and the shift from a resource extraction economy to other economic bases.

Specifically, they will look at the possibility of coordinating curriculum between high schools, FVCC and the business community, increasing road funds in rapid-growth areas, developing mass-transit in the valley and looking at the possibility of a local option tax.

According to Susie Burch, a former Kalispell Chamber of Commerce director who helped organize Flathead on the Move, people from all political stripes have attending the meetings.

Despite this, "It’s been beyond civil," Burch said. "It gives a chance to roll up our sleeves and work alongside people we don’t always agree with."

According to Harris, "Bringing people together in a civil way to resolve conflict" is one of the points of Flathead on the Move.

In the end, action is the goal of the seminars and discussions. This includes crafting a legislative agenda based on discussion results Harris said. Some of the issues on the agenda would be the state tax structure, work force training programs and education budgets.

Flathead on the Move does not appear to have started with any particular agenda, but rather looks to inform the community with unbiased scientific information, and then allow them to shape their own agenda.

Whitefish Chamber of Commerce director Shelia Bowen was positive about Flathead on the Move’s work.

"The process has been very enlightening," she said.

Bowen said the meetings provided her with updated information on growth and changes in the Flathead Valley. She also learned more about the valley as a whole, and how it effects Whitefish. Bowen said she also hopes to share what Whitefish has learned with the rest of the valley.

"We don’t want to be an island, we want to remain as connected as possible," Bowen said.

Bowen said she plans on taking part in the smaller group discussions on education in the Flathead Valley.

The future of Flathead on the Move is in the hands of its members, according to Harris. After the seminars, group meetings and reports, Missoula on the Move formed the City Club, which holds monthly community forums/discussions on a range of topics.

If the interest is there, this could happen in the Flathead also.

So far, Flathead on the Move’s budget has come solely from a $10,000 pledge from Jobs Now Inc. Flathead on the Move cannot apply for grants unless it becomes a non-profit. At this point, costs have been low because all group members work on a volunteer basis.

Times and dates of for future meetings and discussion groups will be released soon. For more information on Flathead on the Move, or to become part of a discussion group, leave a message at 881-4547, or e-mail [email protected]

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