Two mountain ridges ripple up out of flatlands in western Montana. The road leading westward into them sees prairies blend slowly into bushes. Soon roads are flanked by tall dead trees that stick up like toothpicks in an ashtray - some properly aligned but many tipping, leaning at abnormal angles, acting as spikes along natural ramparts. Winding through the mountain passes, the landscape comes alive with cool jewel tones and the forests would be impassably dense if not for the freshly paved road. It breaks to reveal a flatland valley town, a pristine variant of what the natural walls so energetically keep out. Whitefish sits as the pearl within this shell. The walls of mountain and forest scabbard seem to protect the town from the hardships weathering towns on the outside. This is where Ryan Brown was pulled after an early life in the suburbs of Washington.
The cohesion of the Whitefish community is one of the things that seems to give it so much appeal, but in Ryan's time here it hasn't been immune from the changed hitting the country. It seems to have ridden the wave though, rather than be swallowed by it.
It is as though the rules of small town America have been flipped on their head here. Rather than small shops closing down, people fleeing, economies slowing, the current has reversed. Here the little shops are bolstered and big competitors eschewed; People are clamoring to move in; the economy is booming and the money being made is often plowed back into the neighborhood commons.
The reliance on tourism for the town's fortunes has mixed lessons. On the one hand, it shows that economic bloom can still happen in a town with little more than good people and pretty landscape. At the same time, it echoes the dangerous and economically exclusionary narrative out of Silicon Valley and other bleeding edge elements of the American machine. The push to "disrupt" industries, to hack for efficiencies, to find a quirky new "it product" has major payoff for the few winners of the system and it rightly glorifies the success of that new winner. But at the same time it eschews responsibility or even consciousness of the livelihoods that are disrupted and left behind. So too with Whitefish, the small town is like many other small towns in the area apart from its particular draw for the circumstances of the era: its like-worthy shareability, its appeal to a new class of jetsetting social elites looking for a getaway, its bohemian culture, carefully crafted by transplants. It's a success story no doubt. It's also a success story that has little transferrable lessons for a broad turnaround. Successes like this rely on limited resources: tourism, affluence, attention. The residents of Whitefish seem to know what they've got and are happy to use the resources of this prosperity to their benefit.
Whitefish is a success story in a sea of stories of small town stuggles. While it doesn't lend itself as a roadmap to righting the ship around the country, it serves as a shining example of how to handle an economic boom. The residents of town refuse to compromise their or the town's character as growth has settled in. They corral growth into public spaces and turn their economic boom toward recreation and the lifestyle they came for in the first place. There is a clear north star in this type of town. It does not court growth. It uses it to be a better version of itself.