Saturday, January 28, 2023

Whitefish at inflection point as resort celebrates 75 years

| November 27, 2022 12:00 AM

Whitefish Mountain Resort is celebrating a milestone birthday this winter — 75 years of carving powder and apres smiles on “the Big.”

The ski area was born from modest beginnings, with its roots firmly planted in local lore. Over the decades it has blossomed, thrived and significantly shaped the region as we know it today.

Towering prominently at the north end of the valley, Big Mountain first fired up its T-bar in December of 1947 as skiers in leather boots strapped to wooden skis tested their mettle on the powder-laden slopes.

It’s no coincidence that some of Whitefish’s mainstay businesses date back to that same year.

Frank and Jessie Stephens opened Frank’s Shirt Shop in downtown Whitefish in 1947, eventually changing the name to The Toggery, which today boasts two valley locations.

Also founded in 1947, Nelson’s Ace Hardware is another local operation that grew alongside Big Mountain’s success. In today’s front page story, Marilyn Nelson notes the town’s growth “from a sleepy, and at times struggling, little railroad and timber town to an economy based on tourism — out of necessity.”As the blue collar jobs that once defined Stumptown faded, Big Mountain was there to lift up the economy and community as a whole, Nelson points out.

Today, the ski resort attracts some 460,000 visitors to the valley each winter and is consistently ranked among the top ski destinations in North America.

It’s a badge of honor among locals that Whitefish Mountain Resort garners praise not just for skiing terrain and fancy pants accommodations, but mostly for the community’s genuine flavor and friendliness.

Yet, notable obstacles stand in the way of preserving these attractive characteristics — the state’s housing crisis chief among them — and it is evident that Whitefish is at an important inflection point. Will the community-minded spirit and grit that built this thriving city be allowed to persevere, or will it succumb to the pressures of unadulterated outside influence?

To be sure, the decisions made today by local leaders and elected officials will define whether or not Whitefish can retain its core attribute as a “real town” that also happens to have a world-class ski area.

In celebrating 75 years, it is an ideal time for Whitefish residents and its decision-makers to study and reflect upon Big Mountain’s history. In doing so, they will find that the resort and community’s prosperity has come on the shoulders of generations of hard work and innovation — the same traits that will best carry Whitefish and Whitefish Mountain Resort forward for the next 75 years.

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