Peak Summer – Flat Head Lighthouse

We returned to this same local restaurant we ate at before the pandemic hit two years ago. It seems awfully long. More time awaits us, even if we ignore it. The isolation from society proved unbearable for many.

Some have cracked, many have suffered, and everyone has changed in one way or another. Think back to years past and it will become evident. Things have changed.

We had again celebrated a friend’s birthday at this restaurant as we had done years earlier. Both times people looked happy, ate a lot, shared a laugh and a drink. Yet, throughout the restaurant and other establishments, something seems distinctly different.

There is a lot of money flowing. It really does feel like business is back. The workers seem younger. Customers well dressed, as if they came from the big city. Maybe it’s just me, a rapidly aging farmer, showing up in my business casual attire, missing the wardrobe memo.

I always look at houses for sale, knowing full well that there are no properties that local wages can buy anywhere in the valley. Whitefish had a community-supported worker housing program, but Montana hastily rescinded it, citing the concerns of major developers.

The pandemic has welcomed dozens of newcomers to the valley to invest money, buy homes and seek out the vast opportunities available to locals and tourists in this great valley.

A recent report by the Tourism and Recreation Research Institute titled “Montana Residents: Attitudes Towards Tourism 2021” indicated that most people now have strong feelings about the deluge of visitors spending money.

The statewide report states that “for the first time since the ITRR asked the question (1992), a majority of respondents (56%) agreed that the state was becoming overcrowded due to the increase in the number of tourists.

In the district of Glacier Country, mostly in northwestern Montana, 70% of respondents “agreed or strongly agreed that their community was becoming overcrowded due to increased tourist numbers.”

The ITTR report concludes that “residents appear to be fully aware of the economic benefits of tourism, while also recognizing the social cost from which these economic gains derive”.

There is no doubt that tourism has brought a lot of wealth to the Flathead. Yet residents are completely excluded from the housing market. The Flathead has a long history of boom-to-collapse cycles. Unless a dramatically unfortunate downturn occurs, every season in the valley will soon feel like a summer peak in July.

This is excellent news for merchants, restaurateurs and all building trades. Yet the idea that every season feels like July gives many locals more heartburn than even teaspoons of baking soda would suffice.

Places like Columbia Falls and Whitefish have implemented mitigating measures like resort taxes to help manage the infrastructural realities of large resort towns. Both places knew this was coming, worked hard to prepare, but the unprecedented pace of change proved staggering.

I moved slowly into the evening, looking for another restaurant. We weren’t in July yet, so we have good seats at the table. Margaritas flowed so quickly to tables full of eager eyes of LL Bean-equipped skiers that the bartender kept shaking the glasses during dinner.

Everyone felt like locals. That’s how Whitefish rolls. Although tourists dress weirdly these days, I thought. The food appeared quickly and the fresh faced servants were friendly and seemingly happy with their jobs. I really appreciate the food and the friends that Whitefish provides.

The noise from the premises seemed excessive. I assumed other revelers had missed social gatherings during the pandemic and were too eager to tune in. Putative tourism benefits aside, locals are happy to hang out, see friends, and share stories.

Fortunately, it’s a long way from here to July. We haven’t even planted corn yet. Like most locals, we enjoy the slower pace of shoulder season as the planet turns into spring. Relax friends. The peak of summer is not far away.

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