WCR: Katie, welcome to the program.
Katie: Thanks for having me.
WCR: Could you please start by telling us a little about your background?
Katie: So I grew up in Seeley Lake and I actually went in kindergarten in Whitefish. My father was ski school director at Big Mountain in the late 80s, early 90s and then moved us to Seeley Lake permanently. From there I attended high school, grade school, middle school, then went on to the University of Montana where I studied political science, international relations and then I also studied southwest/central Asia, Asian studies, excuse me, and comparative politics international studies. I then moved up to Whitefish where I landed a part time job bartending at the brewery in 2010. I had not quite finished school and they offered me a management position 6 months into working there so I actually ended up driving back and forth from Whitefish to Missoula to finish college because I didn’t want to lose my position or ability to have a great job in Whitefish. I wanted to stay on that track and so, 5 years later, here I am. I manage the draught house at the Great Northern Brewing Company and I’m now running for Whitefish city council.
WCR: And what motivated you to run for city council?
Katie: A lot of things motivated me to run for city council. One of the reasons would be exactly why are people listening to this interview? Because we love Whitefish and we care about Whitefish. I truly believe that everyone has the ability to make a difference and I see that there, there is a voice that is not represented currently on city council and a lot of that voice would be young professionals. People who are trying to make a living, stay in Whitefish, invest in Whitefish, and be able to continue to live here for the next 20 to 30 years. And I don’t currently see that on council and I want to be one of those voices, excuse me, I want to be that voice, to be that representation. I have the time, ability, and desire and that’s all you really need to start kicking off a campaign.
WCR: Absolutely. You are relatively young compared to the other candidates for council, do you believe there is value to having a younger person’s perspective on the council? You just spoke to that, could you speak more to your thoughts on that.
Katie: I do believe there’s value to having a younger voice on the council for a series of reasons. A lot of the issues that are coming up now are affordable housing, economic diversity, and sustainable development. The people who are going to be footing the bill decades down the road and who will be here to invest in Whitefish and be on council in the years to come are people my age now. We need to start having a diverse council just like we have a diverse town. It’s a melting pot of ages, professions, ideas, people from all over the nation and the world live in Whitefish because they love Whitefish and I think that a young voice in Whitefish is key for council and key for the development.
WCR: As a manager of the Great Northern Brewery you are essentially on the front lines of the downtown retail environment and get to see firsthand the effects some of the changes the current city council has made, such as raising the resort tax to 3%. How would you grade the council in its management and support of downtown and its economy, and what would you have done differently if anything?
Katie: I agree on raising the resort tax by 1%. I think that over 80% of the public voted on the Haskill Basin watershed project and I agree with that turnout and with that increase in resort tax because then everyone is footing the bill. It’s not just people who are already paying water prices, its people who are coming in and using our water, our services, and then leaving. It’s part of the big tourism industry that we are and we see that every day, I see that every day in the draught house. A lot of people who come in during the winter and summer times actually aren’t locals and so they’re helping add to that tax base for us and helping pay for these projects to later build infrastructure down the road. So I think that the city has done a good job in terms of being able to seal the deal with the Haskill Basin watershed.
WCR: The reconstruction of city hall has become one of the more controversial issues for this election cycle. Some in the community believe that it would be cheaper and make more sense to relocate the city hall over to the emergency services building area or other areas. The council chose to reconstruct it at its current location with a new parking garage. Of the 4 council members up for election you were the only one who expressed real concern about the location of the city hall and expressed desire to see more public debate on the issue I believe at the recent candidate forum. Can you tell us what you may have done differently if you were on the council?
Katie: I would have voiced certain concerns over spending that large amount of money on a project for city hall and also for the parking structure. Its prime real estate development area. The use of TIF funding is to help build and boost tax base and infrastructure and economic development and to me there are ways that we could use that massive amount of money on a multiple set of other projects such as affordable workforce housing, water and sewer infrastructure and then also still finding ways to have the new city hall in say, the emergency services building and then find an alternative spot for parking just because it is such a prime location for city hall. Now, with that being said, there…it’s in the works, we need to move past it, but note that how I feel about spending money and what projects are on my forefront, that’s kind of where I’m going to keep pushing for, making sure that certain expenditures don’t go over a certain amount of money that I believe is a little overpriced, to say the least.
WCR: Late in the process those opposed to the city hall decision called for a public referendum on the issue. What are your thoughts on the referendum proposal?
Katie: On the public referendum for city hall?
Katie: For city hall, it’s not a black and white issue, I think as I said in the forum it is nuanced. I do believe that having a referendum on budget issues does hamstring development in the governing process. There are a lot of things that would not go through and you actually elect your council members because you trust them to represent your best interests. Now to have a referendum, if the public outcry is that large and you can get the majority to fall behind kind of trying to stop city hall, by all means move forward if that’s what the public desires. And I don’t know how it will proceed from here in terms of are there enough people in support. I think right now a lot of people are starting to move through it. I do believe that the city council has been doing a great job to try and find that fine balance of how are we going to develop infrastructure and how are we going to kind of develop the idea of being an inviting business for, business model for tourists and for people who want to come and stay and have that ultimate experience. The highway 93 corridor project is going, has gone great, excuse me, has gone quite well. I think that it really has opened up the inviting environment to the city and has kinda helped paved the way for potential more businesses and light infrastructure to continue through. But in terms of the referendum for city hall, I just, I don’t know that it will actually come to fruition. I think that it’s a done deal.
WCR: People lead busy lives and aren’t usually checking the local paper for notices about public meetings and workshops and don’t necessarily have time to attend even if they are aware of them. Mayre Flowers with Citizens for a Better Flathead recently called on the council to improve its public notice process to a high level of excellence and fairness. For those who don’t read the papers for public notices, what other ways can we generate awareness of these meetings and for those who are aware but don’t have the time to attend, what alternative ways can they participate in city decisions?
Katie: One key asset that I think that I have used in the summer is being able to view and listen to city hall meetings or meetings online. I think having that available to the public so that it could be background noise while they are cooking dinner, while their brushing their teeth or going to bed so that it actually, they’ll get a little bit of information, they can just turn on the internet, turn on the radio, click play and listen to some of these meeting notes. I really think that is a key asset to public information. I also think that kind of going down the social media outlet and having a page where people can go and easily access this information maybe be it Facebook, be it a site on the city’s website, although they do have that and Chuck Stearns does send email blasts out to everyone regarding the agenda but unless you’re attached to that email you won’t get the information. And I know that a lot of people are less paper based and more internet based so being able to use that as your main source I think is going to be the way to go.
WCR: Water quality in Whitefish Lake is a concern for most residents and I understand that leaks from septic systems around the lake are a major contributor to water quality problems. There is currently some engineering analysis being completed about options for addressing this, but what actions would you like to see to address it?
Katie: I think that the current actions that the city is taking in terms of doing this entire report is amazing. I think that that’s a step in the right direction. I think it was councilman Hildner who said, “as the lake goes, so does Whitefish” and it’s very important that we protect the lake. It’s very important that we protect our water source. It’s very important to Whitefish. We already see that with the Haskill Basin watershed and how the public feels about that issue. I think that we need to have a very clear, conscientious and dialed-in plan after we receive this assessment. It needs to be, it needs to happen sooner rather than later. Time can be of the essence I do believe in a lot of these situations. If you keep pushing it to the side or keep delaying things it can build into a bigger problem where you have even more infrastructure and cost issues down the road because you’re doing more cleanup mitigation than you are doing trying to solve the problem at its core but I think the city is taking the right steps currently allowing this assessment to go through.
WCR: Following the adoption of the Critical Areas Ordinance in 2008 the city and the county engaged in a 6 year battle that eventually led to the Montana Supreme Court awarding the county jurisdiction over regulating development in the so called “doughnut” areas adjacent to the city boundaries. Do you believe it’s important for the city to have authority over development adjacent to city boundaries?
Katie: I believe that the city, I believe…the doughnut issue, let’s take a brief second to, can we take a brief second to collect my thoughts. Well, I know one thing, I know the city has had this issue, it’s been going on for quite a while as you said and every battle the city has fought with the county the city has lost. I mean, yes, for a brief minute, moment there they did have a preliminary injunction to keep control of the doughnut in Whitefish but then the Supreme Court overruled and gave it back to the county. Fact of the matter is, it is now county jurisdiction and what we need to see is dialogue. We need to see the city and the county work together to figure out what is the best plan for development in these areas instead of having this dialogue that is actually counter-productive. I think that being able to sit down and talk about a comprehensive and cohesive zoning regulation and development plan for these outskirts, out-skirting areas is going to be the best way to move forward. I don’t think that Whitefish should necessarily have jurisdiction over these areas if the people who live in these areas do not have the ability to vote and have a representative on city council. That was the main issue with the doughnut is a lot of, the city was then applying their zoning regulations on people who didn’t have a representative that they could, because they can’t vote for city council members so they didn’t have a representation on city council. So for me, running for city council I think that that in itself sealed the deal. They want to be in the doughnut and they want county regulation, let’s have it.
WCR: Perhaps you spoke to this a little bit there with your answer but do you feel there were any mistakes in how the City handled the issue and how it might have handled it differently?
Katie: I think that moving forward we just need to look on and say, we just need to continue a healthy dialogue. We all have core values. The city and the county believe in sustainable development, they believe in protecting your water rights, they believe in proper land usage rights and zoning. So I think that being able to find the common terms, sit down and kind of hash out an agreement and start a healthy dialogue is the way to go and I do believe that city council can move forward with that as can the mayor as well.
WCR: This is a tough question but how do we establish that healthy dialogue with the county. Relations are very difficult at the moment, they are not particularly engaged with us, with the city. What’s your thoughts on re-engaging with the county?
Katie: Re-engaging with the county…I do believe there are efforts already being put into place in terms of re-engaging. I know that at the last city council meeting Mayor Muhlfeld spoke to the conditions of some water and land right usage with the county and they kind of took a bit of a period to revisit the situation so they could have an open dialogue. I think where it starts is by sitting down at a table and laying out each side’s opinion and seeing where you can meet in the middle. Maybe you have a mediator present. And, I will be the first to say that I don’t, because I have not run for city council I do not know how the inner workings of how this goes. I don’t know exactly how it would go forward but I would say potentially mediator if that is a plausible situation just to see where we can start moving forward.
WCR: What are your ideas for…excuse me. Earlier this year we had a successful vote on the funding for conserving Haskill Basin as we spoke about earlier. Another new conservation effort has been announced involving Plum Creek lands in the Lazy Creek drainage north of the lake. Do you support conserving the Plum Creek lands?
Katie: Yes I do. I do, I believe that Whitefish is very eco-centric and very in-tune with being able to play and work and I think that being able to conserve certain lands and allow us to still be ecologically sustainable and economically sustainable can be a great balance and I think that Whitefish is doing a great job trying to find that balance and walk that fine line and to be afraid to conserve certain areas shouldn’t be on anyone’s main thought process.
WCR: There’s currently around $4 million in unallocated Tax Increment Financing or TIF funds that need to be spent by 2020 or it’ll be lost. Could you explain what type of projects you would like to see the funds spent on?
Katie: Yes. I would like the funds to be spent on working towards an affordable workforce housing solution. Be it find land trusts that we could start to invest in, find ways that we can incentivize and build housing for these employees of Whitefish. We have over 1000 service workers in Whitefish and they estimate that these people have an annual income reported of $17,000 a year. Which means that affordable housing and the ability to live in Whitefish is very few and far between. If…I called a local rental agency and asked, A. How many places do you have up for rent and his answer was, currently zero. In November we’ll have 2. My second question, B, was, how many properties do you have. In between Whitefish and Kalispell, the majority were in Whitefish and they were at least 6 month leases, he had 258 properties. And we are about to start a ski season, we are about to start seeing 2 new hotels pop up and we don’t have the space or ability to provide workforce housing for these people and they’re the ones who make up the bread and butter and the personality of Whitefish. They’re supporting our economy and so if we don’t start to address the situation as we continue to build our infrastructure and have these hotels come in, we won’t have the workforce to provide and help stabilize these new investments and so we need to invest in our human capital, invest in our Whitefish citizens and through using affordable workforce housing that is one great way to do it. And I think that’s where I would spend most of my money…most of the money, not my money. I would also then look into wastewater treatment plants and trying to update our sewer and waste treatment.
WCR: Since were on the topic of workforce housing, I want to jump a head a little bit to the question I had that, just, you mentioned land trusts as a possibility, I’m interested in hearing more about that but also just, general ideas of specifically how, it’s been a difficult issue. It’s come up a lot in the past and past councils have not been able to be very successful in it. Do you have thoughts on what could be successful?
Katie Williams: I have thoughts on what could be successful, I attended the Workforce Summit a few weeks ago, and we had a group of people from all different facets of Whitefish and the Valley to come together to talk about this issue. And I think the one thing that we can all walk away with from this meeting was that we need to form a coalition of a group of like-minded individuals who represents, once again, different facets of Whitefish and the valley to try and form a coalition to see how can develop this issue and turn it into solutions from the issue. Right now what we’re seeing is that the density bonuses and the inclusionary housing is not working, it’s voluntary. Do we make, do we change how we deal with permitting fees, do we make accessory housing more viable of an option for develops and try and increase that so we can have more accessory housing popping up. I think what we do need to do is first start with figuring out who is going to tasked with dealing with this situation and I think it needs to be a coalition of business owners, it needs to have individuals from the community, it needs to have members from the city and from the Chamber all getting together, forming a group, and then working through it and having allocated funds to figure out what is the best situation. Do the housing assessment again, figure out what our what exact raw number are in Whitefish. Start from a base, start with an informed based and then work forward. And we’re starting to roll with that momentum and we need to keep making sure that that momentum doesn’t slow down.
WCR: Earlier this year the council adopted the Revised Downtown Master Plan. Most don’t want Whitefish to become another Aspen or Vail. It’s been stated repeatedly. What actions does the city need to take to avoid that and do you believe the Downtown Master Plan supports that vision?
Katie Williams: I do believe that a lot of the skeleton of the Downtown Master Plan does support that vision. I think that by not allowing these cookie cutters, or box stores has been part of that visions for Whitefish, in terms of not having that Vail or Aspen feel but, once again, it goes back to affordable housing if you don’t have people, locals who can afford to live here, you’re only going to have people who are tourists or second homeowners who come and visit for a small portions of the year. You’re going to lose the hometown feel because your school systems are going to drop down in attendance once these young families stop moving in to the area and start using your bedroom communities to live in like Columbia Falls or Kalispell, so your workforce is going to come, drive into Missoula, excuse me not Missoula, Whitefish, your workforce is going to drive into Whitefish but they’re not going to stay here, they’re not going to stay local, shop local, and be locals. And so I think that by including that in to the whole plan will help continue that feel of it not becoming Aspen or Vail, by investing in the human capitol part of the infrastructure.
WCR: The Downtown Master Plan envisions a “boutique” hotel along 1st street between Baker and Central Ave on the south end of the block that Markus Foods is on. One of the things people like about our downtown is that it is vibrant and it does serve locals as much as tourists. Does encouraging a hotel in the center of downtown jeopardize the character and “grit” of Whitefish?
I think depending on the size of the hotel would. I think that it would also help with honestly increasing our tax base as well. You have people downtown; they’re going to spend money downtown. It’s going to be during the summer and winter portions when we’re going to see an influx of these people and we are a tourism and service based industry. It’s not going to prevent people from, and locals from going downtown in any way, shape, or form. It’s not going to be a cookie cutter box store hotel, it’s going to be something small and local that you can give your own personal flair. You’ll have those locals, who embody the grit of Whitefish, who will be working there and still continuing to give that vibe off and you will have people who just start to interact in that melting pot of Whitefish locals. I really do not think that it would deter, from taking away from the grit, deter the grit of Whitefish as it is.
WCR: The Downtown Master Plan envisions enhanced mixed use and pedestrian friendly development that people find attractive and often spurs economic growth. But this contrasts sharply with the more sprawling, vehicle oriented development south of town along the highway. Do you support the city, zoning the rest of the city, particularly south of town so that it’s more consistent with downtown mixed use and pedestrian friendly zoning plan?
Katie Williams: I do. But I think that if you look at what is going on in terms of the demographic of Whitefish, people ride their bikes, people walk everywhere, we’re a very outdoor oriented community and I think that being able to tie the entirety of Whitefish together is a great idea.
WCR: What are some things the city council can do to bring jobs which can help diversify our economy outside of the tourism industry?
Katie Williams: Frist off, I think that we need to find low-impact industrial jobs, tech jobs, internet jobs, design jobs, marketing jobs. Find these young professionals, find the professionals who want to live in Whitefish who can work from home or can work from an office and still make an impact on the local economy. Find these tech jobs that will bring people in, and will help us be cutting edge and leading the charge and not preventing the Montana brain drain, and just letting it be an oasis for these people who already want to move here anyway, the jobs are just not available. People want to live in Whitefish, they like everything that it embodies, they love the outdoors, adventure seekers want to be here because of its proximity to the lakes, the mountain, Glacier Park but we just can’t offer those jobs, so by, able to, try to find these professional jobs, and these low impact, low industry jobs we can stabilize our economy because we will have people who invest dollars back into the community during those mud seasons as well. WE won’t have a, more or less, mass exodus as soon as the tourism industry leaves these workers who’ll wax and wane, come in and come out, we’ll have people who’ll continue to be in town as our shoulder season starts to shrink. Wow. Say that ten times fast. Shoulder season [laughs] starts to shrink [laughs]. So I think that trying to find way that incentivize and bring this type of development in to town would be very great for our economic diversity.
WCR: Some municipalities in Montana are offering curbside recycling this city service is more feasible due to simplified sorting rules that allow for combing some materials do you think that city should provide leadership to establish curbside recycling programs>
Katie Williams: I think that it should not be mandatory currently; I think that it would be too expensive, as we are in terms of our service and utility bills. I think that if could find ways to incentivize or just advertise it more, potentially you could get more people who would voluntarily do it. I do believe that have or sending a recycling bin off Railway and Columbia would be a great move for the community. Already our recycling bins are filling up. People want to recycle, if the resource is there they will use it if the city is willing and wanting to increase recycling, by all means let’s give them the tools, the ability to do so. I think that they, if we started putting more information out about recycling in terms of these are your options, this is how you do it, if you choose to have this service or this utility, then by all means here are the tools to do so. But, I think to make it mandatory right now is not a wise choice.
WCR: Cities across Montana, including Billings, Bozeman, Helena and Missoula, have adopted climate action plans to evaluate their contribution to climate change, and to devise goals by which they plan to become “carbon neutral.” Would you support a locally crafted climate action plan for the city?
Katie Williams: I would. I would support a locally supported climate action plan for the city. I think that Whitefish already offers quite a few things in terms of moving forward for having a lower carbon footprint, like we said earlier tying all these areas of the community together through bike paths, kind of incentivizing biking walking, commuting using means other than cars, and I think that we see a lot of that with Whitefish, and I would love to see what we have to offer in terms of that plan.
WCR: With regards to public transit, there’s currently Eagle transit, through the county that offers commuter public transit between Whitefish and Kalispell, as well as a city bus that runs within the community, but very limited hours. There’s also the S.N.O.W. Bus for the mountain. But all this is very limited public transportation. Are there, do you have thoughts or ideas how to either one, increase support for that so they can operate more hours, or two, also, not a lot of people know that it exists, to kind of get the word out about public transportation availability in the city.
Katie Williams: I think that consistency in advertising would be key, I do actually two co-workers who live in Kalispell and try to take the bus as much as possible. If it’s a nice day he actually rides his bike from Kalispell to Whitefish, and then takes the bus back, but he’s had issues where it’s, once you have you’re very set schedule, and he has missed it many times, and so I think it’s about consistency and availability, and as we start once again, growth we need to find ways to make public transportation more available for people. I think this year at the draft house, I’ve had more request and inquiries about public transportation in terms of buses, than I have any other year. And, for me trying to look up the schedule, trying to look up schedules, availability, call on the lines regarding information regarding public transportation was not the easiest thing to do, and I think that making it more available and easier for anyone, including myself, would help kind start pushing the movement towards utilizing these services more and then seeing once we’re using these services in a bigger mass, the we could try and figure out, ok, what’s our next step, how do we grow this service. Because I think that having more transportation between Kalispell and Whitefish will be necessary in the next ten years, next five years. I think that it’s something the needs to be put on the plate.
WCR: Last question for you. How would you differentiate yourself from the other candidates running for city council?
Katie Williams: Well[laughs], I’m a younger individual, I am female, and I represent the service industry. I have lived in Montana all of my life. I have been coming and or living in Whitefish since I was 4. I am a true Montanan and I am, literally I’ve said this before, I’m boots on the ground, I see the ins and outs in the issues of myself and my employees trying to figure out we can stay in this community, invest in this community. How can we incentivize our workers, how can we incentivize our co-workers, and how can we find ways to be able to stay here and start a family and invest in the place that we love and can that place re-invest in us. And so, I think that I represent more of that demographic than other candidates.
WCR: Great, well Katie, good luck to you and thank you so much coming in and speaking with us.
Katie Williams: Thank you for having me. This was wonderful