It's no surprise that the Whitefish Trail is popular — a weekend hike on Lion Mountain will prove that — but a new study shows the trail is also a big economic driver for the community.
Headwaters Economics, a research firm based in Bozeman, collected data on trail use over the past year using infrared counters, intercept surveys, data from workout applications and more.
The results show 72,996 uses across the four measured trails — Lion Mountain, Beaver Lakes, Swift Creek and Spencer Mountain — but what's more encouraging is the $6.1 million spent every year in Whitefish by Whitefish Trail users.
Meg Lawson of Headwaters presented her firm's findings during a recent open house event at the Firebrand Hotel.
While the money spent by trail users is a big number, the trail's impacts extend even further than tourism dollars, she explained.
"As business owners you know it's hard to find and keep talented employees, and outdoor recreation is really one of the ways that you can do that," she said. "It's a short sell to just talk about it in terms of tourism and tourism dollars and how much money it brings in. What's really overlooked is how outdoor recreation, through tourism, is a marketing device for entrepreneurs to move here, people who move their families here."
The study also showed that outdoor recreation is the No. 1 reason for visiting Whitefish.
Of nearly 1,800 interviews conducted, 65 percent of visitors said they came to Whitefish for the recreation. In that group of visitors, 70 percent had already heard of the trail and 56 percent said it was part of the outdoor recreation that prompted their visit to Whitefish.
"When we sample locals and visitors, across the board outdoor recreation is the No. 1 reason why visitors come to Whitefish and why locals either come to or stay in Whitefish," Lawson said. "I'm not telling you guys anything new, you guys already know this. But what we have here is data to actually back up the anecdotes you guys know from your own experience. Between summer and winter recreation, community's important as well, but really people are here to play."
As for the money those guests spend in Whitefish, Headwaters reports an average of $206 per day spent by visitors.
Visitor spending also accounts for supporting roughly 50 jobs and $1.3 million in direct income.
The study also showed the role of locals on the trail. Locals are still the biggest users, with 1,078 of the 1,794 interviewed coming from the Flathead Valley.
Of those locals, 51 percent recreate more because of the trail and most use the system at least once a week.
Director of Development for Whitefish Legacy Partners Alan Myers-Davis said the results gave a solid backing to things the community anecdotally understood. Where he hopes these results will come in handy is in fundraising, he said.
Right now WLP is working through its Close the Loop project, which aims to connect different segments of the trail in a long loop that circles Whitefish Lake. The trail currently includes 42 miles of trails at 12 trailheads.
WLP is finishing up Phase I of closing the loop with the new Haskill Basin section of trail.
"One of the things we're hoping is this will open up some funding opportunities and open some doors that way," Myers-Davis said. "The Close the Loop project is a big push on many fronts, but we kind of left the most difficult and most expensive sections of trail for last. As we look for larger funding sources, we think the economic impact study results is going to make it more appealing to larger organizations and larger donors."
Likewise, Myers-Davis said he hopes Whitefish can be an example for other towns seeking to invest in a dedicated trail system like the Whitefish Trail.
"We hope that this can be a model for other communities in the West. We realize we've got an amazing trail system in Whitefish ... down the road, we hope that this study can kind of inspire other communities to pursue their projects, and show that yes, if they invest in outdoor recreation it'll bring dollars to their economy," he said.