A proposal to build an 11,000-square-foot church and retail building in downtown Whitefish was denied by the city council Tuesday night.
More than 70 people attended the public hearing and vote on Fresh Life Church’s hotly-contested proposal. Cassie Monaco was one of 20 members of the public who commented Tuesday night.
"We just don't want it to be where it takes away from the eloquence of our town, the charm, and the timelessness," said Monaco.
Fresh Life currently holds Sunday services in the Whitefish Performing Arts Center.
City council received more than 170 comments leading up to Tuesday’s final vote. Concerns ranged from parking and traffic issues, as three other churches hold Sunday services in the same vicinity, to the proposed church not conforming to growth plans for that part of Whitefish, to potential loss of property tax revenue due to the church’s tax-exempt status.
Steve Qunell sits on the city’s Planning Board, which voted unanimously against the proposal in January. He asked city councilors to think about how the proposed church could affect the city’s future downtown development.
"The long term issue of what is that block supposed to look like, and does this particular project meet the requirements for a CUP in this district? I think it's clear from our deliberations. it was unequivocal and unanimous that this did not meet those," said Qunell.
People were also concerned about Fresh Life’s recent developments in Kalispell. The Church has been expanding its real estate portfolio since establishing in 2007, buying up Kalispell’s Strand Theater in 2010 and the Montana Building in 2016. It then chose not to renew leases for more than a dozen business tenants.
Some people in Whitefish fear Fresh Life is not being transparent in its plans for their downtown. But John Mark Creamer, operations pastor for Fresh Life Church, says that’s not the case.
"We have every intention to work with every city office to meet any requests that are made to ensure the project is something that fits well within Whitefish and the Central Avenue district," said Creamer.
Whitefish city councilors ultimately voted 5-to-1 to deny the proposal, citing its failure to comply to the city’s downtown master plan.
City councilor Richard Hildner said he spent more time considering this issue than any other during his tenure on city council.
"I was struck by seeing the names of so many of my friends and neighbors on both sides of the issue," said Hildner.
John Mark Creamer with Fresh Life says the church does not have a backup plan but may consider another proposal for a permanent space in Whitefish in the future. Several people who commented said they supported Fresh Life opening a campus in a different location in Whitefish.
Fresh Life Church has campuses in eight Montana towns, including Missoula, Bozeman, and Polson, as well as Jackson Hole, Salt Lake City, Portland, and network sites in North Dakota and Lethbridge, Alberta.