Whitefish Debates Future City Hall Location

first_img Email Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. WHITEFISH – After talks over the future location of Whitefish’s City Hall appeared to be accelerating, city councilors decided to “take a step back” last week and formulate a planning process, beginning with a Sept. 19 public meeting. The city is looking to upgrade from its current City Hall facility on the corner of Second Street and Baker Avenue, preferably into a building that can house all of its departments. A new City Hall is a major component of the city’s Downtown Master Plan, adopted in 2006.At a public hearing on Sept. 6, councilors agreed there are too many unanswered questions to make a decision right now, noting that the tax-increment financing district (TIF), from which construction funds will likely be derived, doesn’t sunset until 2020. The council will discuss its next steps at a regularly scheduled Sept. 19 meeting.“Just to inform the decision-making process, we need to take a step back,” Councilor John Muhlfeld said.A 2007 needs assessment called for a City Hall facility of roughly 18,000 square feet to accommodate the administration, legal, public works, planning and building, and parks and recreation departments. The city has $1.5 million set aside in a construction fund and will continue to allocate $250,000 per year for the project. There is also $104,000 in collected impact fees for City Hall.On Sept. 6, the council ostensibly looked at five possible locations, though the strongest sentiments from both the council and public favored choosing between two primary options: reconstructing the current site or moving into the Mountain West Bank building at 601 Spokane Ave.The other three options included in the council’s meeting packet were the western half of Block 60 across Baker Avenue from the post office; a site north of the Whitefish Community Library; and two-thirds of Block 46 between Spokane and Kalispell avenues and Second and Third streets. Of the five options, Mountain West Bank is the only site considered out of the downtown district, though its proponents argue that because of Whitefish’s growth downtown will eventually encompass the building. Critics contend that the site isn’t pedestrian friendly and is more difficult to reach by foot than the downtown options. Eleven people spoke at the Sept. 6 public hearing, with nine in favor of keeping City Hall downtown, one supporting Mountain West Bank and one asking the council to gather more public input before making a decision. Tom Kraus, manager of the Mountain Mall, was the hearing’s lone proponent of Mountain West Bank. He said the site is “going to be part of downtown” in the future and the city should take advantage of the current price tag. The city has a signed option to purchase the land and building for $2.1 million. Councilor Turner Askew reiterated his support of Mountain West Bank. In an earlier letter to the editor, he argued that the city could use the money saved by purchasing the inexpensive property to contribute to renovating the high school. Askew wrote that the bank is “big enough for our current city needs and provides plenty of options for expansion later on if necessary.” At 12,350 square feet, however, the building falls short of the needs assessment’s recommendation of 18,137 square feet.Councilor Phil Mitchell has also expressed support of the bank location, describing it as the cheapest option. Councilor Bill Kahle said, in describing his desire to carefully review all possibilities, “the cheapest option may not be the best option.”There was some uncertainty over the price tags presented at the meeting. By all accounts, Mountain West Bank is the least expensive option if limited to the existing structure, or the structure with some renovations. But if expanded to meet the assessment’s space requirements, its price tag is nearly identical to reconstructing the current location, according to figures from Finance Director Rich Knapp.Knapp estimates both projects, after factoring in land acquisition and construction expenses, to cost roughly $3.9 million, with the current site costing slightly less. Included in the current site’s price tag is $750,000 for purchasing the neighboring Coldwell Banker lots, giving the city ownership of the entire half block along Baker. The other three options range from $4.2 million to $6.4 million, according to Knapp.Another factor for the council to consider is the potential value of the existing City Hall property. If sold, city officials estimate the property could generate between $3.5 and $4.5 million. Or it could be retained for future parking.The possibility of hiring an outside consultant was floated at the meeting, garnering interest from Muhlfeld and Kahle but opposition from Councilor Chris Hyatt who said the budget is too tight to hire a consultant.Supporters of a downtown City Hall say it’s important to keep the town’s main administrative building in the city’s core and that it should be viewed as a long-term asset. Chris Schustrom argued that redeveloping the current site is a more “responsible” use of TIF funds.Ed McGrew said moving City Hall into Mountain West Bank would be a “huge mistake.” McGrew agrees with the points made in a letter to the editor written by Tom Muri, who said that government buildings should be a source of pride in a community.The city should redevelop the current site, Muri said, to include a portion dedicated to city and public parking; a landscaped section with grass, trees and plants; and an attractive City Hall building.“Why not have trees and an attractive open landscape together with architectural pleasing and powerful building as an integral part of Whitefish’s future?” Muri wrote.last_img read more