City Council Monday night gave a resounding “no” to a last-minute request by the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce to spare the city’s building in Depot Park from demolition.
The chamber had wanted to lease the building, which formally housed the city parks and planning departments, to use as a visitor center. However, after hearing about 45 minutes of testimony Monday night, mostly from those asking the city to reconsider previous decisions to tear down the building, the issue didn’t even come to a vote.
Councilor Katie Williams made a motion to add to Council’s next agenda an item to consider postponing demolition and look at leasing the building to the chamber, but the motion died for a lack of second.
She noted the motion was to see if there was support for keeping the building, but she respects plans that have long called for demolition and it’s “time to move forward.”
Council remained largely mum on the issue, but Mayor John Muhlfeld did speak after the motion failed to move to a vote.
“I hope you can appreciate the city’s position on this,” he said. “We respect the chamber’s point of view, but obviously we feel differently.”
City Council in July 2016 split on a vote to stick with the Depot Park master plan recommendation to demolish the building, but did allow the chamber a chance to return with a proposal to lease the building. The chamber came back to the city that fall asking for a 10-year lease on the building, however, Council rejected the plan with some Councilors noting that creating more greenspace in the park as more important than retaining the building.
Chamber Board Chairman Dan Graves recently wrote a letter to the city, once again asking that the building be spared. Muhlfeld subsequently replied with his own letter saying the request would be up to City Council.
The chamber had asked to lease the building, saying it would be the best location for the city’s visitor center with its location downtown near the train depot and in the park, which includes many summertime events. The chamber said it believes that many folks in town would prefer to keep the building for use as a visitor center rather than have it demolished and argues that the master plan can evolve over time.
Graves, who is the CEO of Whitefish Mountain Resort, said he sees about 350,000 skiers visit the resort each year and “over half are from out of town.” Addressing other comments that visitors rely on technology or could use a kiosk for information, he said that doesn’t actually work.
“If [the resort] relied only on a kiosk instead of talking to people, I don’t think we’d be as successful,” he said. “Just because [removing the building] is in the master plan doesn’t mean that’s it. We believe that a visitor center benefits the entire community.”
Tony Veseth, who serves on the chamber’s board, said once the building is gone it can never be replaced and that a visitor’s center could support Whitefish businesses. He said a visitor center in Depot Park could become a hub for hotel information, booking restaurant reservations, picking up a trail guide or purchasing theater tickets.
“The majority of our economy is tourism-based,” he said. “Think of it as a Whitefish concierge service.”
“People still like to talk to people,” he added.
Rhonda Fitzgerald said the plan to eliminate the building is part of implementing the Depot Park master plan and the downtown master plan, and was the original intention when the city purchased the park.
“It’s a catalyst project that’s part of the plan that has created a vibrant downtown because we’ve followed through with the other projects in the plan,” she said. “The building needs to go so the city’s vision can come to fruition.”
Fitzgerald said the trend in travel is for people to get information electronically making a visitor center unnecessary.
Rebecca Norton told Council that it was unfair to revisit the issue when it had already come through a lengthy public process.
“It’s not like this is suddenly a surprise,” she said.
In its letter, the chamber pointed out that the city estimate to demolish the building was previously around $20,000 and today its bumped up to $120,000. The chamber proposed leasing the building for 10 years paying the city $360,000 in rent during that time.
However, the city notes that those numbers are not comparable. It points out that the $20,000 figure was limited to demolishing the building and did not include asbestos remediation, adaptation of utilities, removal of the parking lot and shed improvements to address drainage issues for the old pond, and the reclamation of the land to a useable greenspace.
It also notes that though the city could realize rental income for the building, it would also face costs to bring the building up to snuff for renting such as installing a new roof and on-going maintenance costs.
The city is taking bids on Phase 1 of the Depot Park plan, which include demolition of the building and removing the adjacent parking lot, relocating existing underground utilities, site grading, landscaping, new lawn irrigation and new street lights.
The city acquired the Depot Park office building in 2009 from the Park Side Credit Union.
North Valley Music School had hoped to purchase the building and move it to the city’s snow lot, but that never came to fruition.