Six Key Findings from NPCA's Healthy Parks, Healthy Communities Study
While much of rural America struggles with economic decline, the economy in Montana's Flathead Valley is growing, vibrant, and diversifying. The reason is simple: Its superb quality of life pays off in tangible economic benefits. Glacier National Park and other scenic public lands, clean air and water, and a friendly, small-town character are cornerstones of this quality of life.
In 2002, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA)—through its Northern Rockies regional offices located in Whitefish and Helena—commissioned three separate studies to explore the roots of economic vitality in Flathead County, the primary "gateway" to Glacier National Park.
Gateway to Glacier: The Emerging Economy of Flathead County synthesizes the findings of these three studies to document how the Flathead's economic vitality is directly tied to Glacier Park and the region's natural environment and small-town character. It argues that many of the valley's most attractive qualities are at risk. And it points the way toward a collaborative approach to protect these valuable assets for the future.
Some say that the Flathead has been discovered, and this is probably the plainest way to explain the changes of the past decade. The attraction of Flathead County, its communities, and the surrounding landscape is obvious to long-time residents, newcomers, and first-time visitors alike.
Many valley residents fear that this "discovery" has brought rapid change that will erode what they value most about their home. Yet in this transition are opportunities to protect the qualities and characteristics that make this a uniquely wonderful place to live—and that are at the heart of the valley's economic vitality.
Gateway to Glacier explores the challenges and the opportunities within the county's economic transition. Its key findings about the Flathead's emerging economy are briefly described in this executive summary and explored greater in the six chapters that follow.
1. The Flathead County economy is vibrant, diverse, and growing.
By virtually any economic indicator, Flathead County is booming:
- In the last decade, 15,700 new jobs were created, an increase of nearly 50 percent. Dramatic increases occurred in relatively high-quality employment areas such as health care, business services, construction, and new areas of manufacturing.
- Population grew 26 percent between 1990 and 2000, led by an influx of new residents.
- Nearly 1,000 new businesses were established in the last decade, a 44-percent increase in local employers that marks a boom in entrepreneurial activity.
- Unemployment rates are the lowest in three decades.
- Per capita income rose by 13 percent in the last decade (up from nine percent in the '80s). Poverty has declined. And median income sharply increased, erasing losses in the previous decade.
The Flathead's economic vitality is largely fueled by an influx of new residents. But the numbers also tell a story of an economy in transition, more diverse and more stable than before, providing higher-paying jobs. Within this transition is the opportunity to direct economic development to sustain a vibrant economy, whether or not the population boom continues.
2. The quality of the Flathead Valley's spectacular natural environment is its chief economic asset.
Surveys and interviews with Flathead County residents, visitors, and business leaders confirm that the valley's chief appeal is the place itself: The small-town, friendly atmosphere, access to the outdoors and recreational opportunities, scenic beauty, clean water, wildlife, and the open, natural setting. These qualities are key economic assets because they draw people to visit, to live, and to stay in the area. Most business leaders interviewed believe they could make higher incomes elsewhere but choose to operate in Flathead County largely because of the quality of life.
Nationwide economic and technological trends have made it easier for people to live where they want. The Flathead's booming population is a sign of the area's undeniable attractiveness—and a confirmation that the quality of life is the area's chief economic asset. It is what draws people, income, jobs, and businesses here.
3. Glacier National Park is an anchor for Flathead County's robust economy.
In a county blessed with a spectacular natural setting, Glacier National Park is the centerpiece. It is one of Montana's two most popular attractions for visitors, and tops the list of places local residents take out-of-town guests. The icon for nearly 200 business names and logos, Glacier also shows up on signboards for hundreds of millions of dollars of high-profile development, including a proposed mall, a performing arts center, and the redeveloped Big Mountain ski village. Glacier's appeal spans the globe, and it was voted America's best backcountry park by readers of Backpacker magazine. Meanwhile, Kalispell was selected in 1999 as America's "best mountain town" by Mountain Sports & Living Magazine, which cited its proximity to Glacier Park.
4. Proximity to national parks is an economic advantage for gateway communities such as Flathead County.
An assessment of national park gateway communities around the West shows that Flathead County's booming economy reflects a much larger pattern. Attracted by small, friendly communities and appealing landscapes, many Americans turned their attention from major metropolitan areas and traditional retirement havens during the 1990s. Rapidly growing populations in communities adjacent to national parks throughout the West suggest the special appeal of these places.
This appeal has translated into economic vitality for gateway counties such as Flathead, which tend to have richer, more diverse, and more thriving economies than do similar counties that are not gateways. In these counties, tourism is but one piece of a rapidly expanding economic pie. Economic growth has been driven largely by the people who live in these gateway communities and by local businesses.
5. The Flathead Valley's most valued qualities and primary economic assets are at risk.
Many local residents believe that the valley is losing some of its special qualities, most notably its rural, small-town character, farmland, and open spaces. Returning visitors to Glacier National Park have noted declines in the condition of the natural environment, wildlife viewing opportunities, and the amount of open space. NPCA has listed Glacier as one of America's most endangered parks three times because of severe funding shortfalls, dilapidated infrastructure, and the encroachment of haphazard development on wildlife habitat outside the park.
6. Flathead communities must encourage high-quality economic growth and development.
The Flathead economy is in transition. Today's growth provides the opportunity to retool the economy so it remains strong and diverse, whether or not the population boom continues. Flathead County has enjoyed great success in creating jobs and attracting development and investment. The valley's communities must now create a clear strategy and focused initiatives to improve the well-being of Flathead residents and protect the area's most vital economic assets.
This focus will help Flathead County maintain the quality of life that old-timers, newcomers, and visitors find so appealing. High-quality economic development means maintaining water quality, wildlife habitat, an appealing landscape, and the valley's friendly small-town character. It means retaining working farms and forests, cultivating jobs with pay and benefits that can fully sustain workers and their families, and investing in a well-educated local workforce. Economic growth can be guided to support and protect the values that drive it, rather than leading inexorably to their erosion and loss.
Investing in the Future
The families, businesses, and communities of Flathead County have been blessed with one of the most spectacular natural environments in North America. These natural amenities have become the area's chief economic asset. Flathead residents recognize that, along with small, friendly communities, these characteristics are largely responsible for the quality of life and economic vitality they enjoy.
This recognition can form a solid foundation for community dialogue and cooperative action to protect and enhance these fundamental assets. Partnerships of many kinds will be indispensable if Flathead residents are to guide growth to protect the values they cherish. With Glacier National Park and other public lands so directly linked to the valley's economic health, collaboration between public lands managers and communities is essential to sustain the appeal at the heart of the Flathead's economic vitality.