The Bigfork area experienced a number of changes and challenges during 2010. Here’s a snapshot of some of the ongoing stories of the year.
In January, Russ Kinzer, superintendent of the Bigfork School District, announced that he would retire at the end of June. Kinzer had been in education for 36 years including a little more than a decade in Bigfork.
After a search that stretched until mid-April, the school board selected Cynthia Clary to take Kinzer’s place. Clary, who had most recently been superintendent at Van Vleck Independent School District in Texas, started July 1.
DRAWS IN THE OFFSEASON
In the month of February, residents set out to prove that Bigfork is still a happening place in the winter and they did so with unexpected success. Ryan Pelton’s Elvis: Live in Concert on Valentine’s Day brought nearly a thousand people to Bigfork, with two sold-out shows in the 435-seat Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts. That was followed by the town’s first Brewfest two weeks later, which brought another 500 people to the area.
In light of the success of those events, the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts Foundation kicked off its first major winter season in October, with theater, music, comedy and magic shows planned throughout the 2010-2011 offseason.
A five-year sweet cherry variety trial got its start in spring 2010.
The project aims to test other cherry varieties that could be harvested both earlier and later than the currently locally grown Lambert and Lapin cherries to help heighten local growers’ competitiveness. Trees were planted at six different test orchards around Flathead Lake and research recordings began. Funding has been secured for at least two more years of the study through grants.
NORTH SHORE SETTLEMENT
In March, the Flathead County commissioners voted 2-1 to accept a settlement agreement to end a lawsuit between the county and developers of the North Shore Ranch near Somers. As part of that agreement, the county was to pay $1 million to the developers over three years, as well as construct the internal road network for the subdivision and two turning lanes on Montana Highway 82. Approximately $600,000 of that $1 million was to be allocated to purchase a non-exclusive 150-acre easement for public use and access. An amendment to the agreement allowed 30 additional days to negotiate the purchase of the entire property to protect it. Those negotiations failed.
Local schools faced projected budget shortfalls in the spring for the next school year, and had to make tough decisions in 2010.
The Bigfork School District was looking at its biggest deficit in recent memory for its 2010-2011 budget — a shortfall of approximately $297,000.
To make up the difference, the district offered an early-retirement incentive, which was taken by half a dozen teachers and staff members. Two certified teachers were cut and another teaching position was left unfilled. Five classified staff positions, both full and part time, were also eliminated. A number of other positions, certified and classified including tenured staff, also experienced reduced assignments or were reassigned. In addition, funding for two sports programs, golf and cross country, was eliminated.
Swan River School also experienced budget setbacks. The school faced at least a $50,000 deficit for the 2010-11 school year. To get the school back in the black, it adopted full-day kindergarten, made staff cuts including a one-on-one special education aide and a half-time librarian position, and was able to make up funds through retirements and internal duty shifting. The school also switched insurance companies since a hike in premiums was part of the reason for the shortfall.
Branding efforts got underway in 2010 for the Village.
The slogan for Bigfork was announced in April — “Where Flathead Lake begins” — and the new logo was revealed in September. Both are intended to be used to present a clear and consistent image for the Village. Work has continued on taking both the logo and slogan and incorporating them into signage in the Village and in a massive update of the Bigfork Area Chamber of Commerce’s website, which is expected to be done in early 2011.
A group of community members began work to revitalize the Sliter Park area in Bigfork in the spring. The group, calling itself the Sliter Park Improvement Committee, began with clean-up work around the landscaping bed at the front of the park. The committee then developed other plans for the site — memorials for both veterans and community founders. Work is ongoing on the project, with funding support still being sought.
In races in the Bigfork area, incumbents ruled the day.
Five candidates vied for the two open positions on the Bigfork Rural Fire District Board. Incumbents Zach Anderson and Leland Leivo received the highest totals.
For the Bigfork School Board, incumbents Mike Roessmann and Thad Jordt retained their three-year positions, beating out challenger Heather Postlewait.
In the local legislative races, both Republican incumbents also held on to their seats. Scott Reichner retained the House District 9 seat and Verdell Jackson the Senate District 5 position.
Bigfork Ambulance voted to dissolve its organization and combined its forces with the Bigfork Volunteer Fire Department in July. The fire department has since been providing emergency medical services in the area.
Discussions on a possible merger began in May, spurred by the fact that members were not responding to calls or signing up for call times, a problem that presented safety concerns for the community. This was attributed both to political and personality conflicts as well as the lack of a leadership structure and discipline.
Based on legal counsel, the organization voted to dissolve its non-profit and transferred its assets to fellow 501(c)3 Friends of Bigfork Fire, since the organization did not have the ability to transfer to Bigfork Fire directly due to constraints of its non-profit charter. Friends of Bigfork Fire then gave the funds and equipment to the fire department, with the exception of certain earmarked funds.
Voters in the Bigfork area approved an $8.1 million general obligation bond to help pay to replace the Bigfork Water and Sewer District’s existing and aging wastewater treatment plant in July. The total cost of the project is $9.6 million, but $1.5 million was raised through grants.
The current treatment system at the plant was constructed in 1986 with an anticipated 20-year life-expectancy and had shown signs of aging.
The new 6,300-square-foot treatment facility will include a membrane filtration system, which will be the first one in the state. The system is aimed at helping the district meet the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s new permit standards that the current plant is not able to comply with. The district has until Jan. 1, 2013 to comply before hefty daily fines will ensue. It will also double the district’s existing capacity.
Construction began on the building at the end of November. It’s projected to take about a year and a half.
2010 was eventful for the LEAP after-school program, which was in its fifth year.
The program’s director, Cathy Gaiser, became the first-ever recipient of the Montana Attorney General’s After-school Provider of the Year Award. She was presented with a plaque at a state conference.
LEAP was also approved to sponsor Montana’s Simplified Summer Food Program to provide free breakfast and lunch to local children at three sites in Bigfork.
LEAP continued to endure some funding struggles in 2010. Since at one time more than 50 percent of the students in Bigfork School District qualified for free and reduced lunch, those children also qualified to attend LEAP programs for free. That meant a loss in tuition payers and a significant source of the program’s funding, which is a challenge the program is still battling.
The Grand Drive portion of the Bigfork Stormwater Project came closer to construction in 2010.
Final design engineering was completed in late summer. Construction was originally projected to begin in the fall, but contracts were signed several months later than anticipated.
The later date came due to delays from Montana Department of Commerce’s Treasure State Endowment Program’s response to comments submitted from the public comment period.
The original plan called for construction to run for 40 days in the fall and 40 days in the spring. Now construction will begin about April 4 and is contracted for 80 days — putting its anticipated end date in mid-June though it may be completed sooner.
In the meantime, preliminary designs for the River Street portion of the project are being examined and discussed.
MUSSELS IN THE LAKE
Residents around Flathead Lake received some perhaps upsetting news, if its true, this year.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks reported that exotic mussels may be present in the north end of Flathead Lake.
Microscopic larvae that are suspected to be from the mussels, considered an invasive species, may have been contained in four of 17 samples taken in the Lake between May and August, though research is still ongoing.
Neither zebra nor quagga mussels have ever been found in Montana. These exotic mussels, which can be carried in on boats, do not have a predator to manage their numbers, leading them to reproduce and spread quickly. The mussels are said to also block water intake pipes, disrupt water purification and hydropower plant operations, and may impact fishery populations.
Starting with a three-car crash on Montana Highway 82 on the east side of Sportsman’s Bridge on Sept. 3, Bigfork had a rough start to fall with a series of accidents and other emergencies. The crash was followed in subsequent weeks by a tipped pup trailer from a fuel tanker that narrowly avoided a collision with a school bus, a fire that burned a two-story house on Echo Cabin Loop, a robbery at First Interstate Bank in which the suspect is still at large and a trailer packed with straw that ignited while being driven down the highway near McCaffery Road.
Greg Barkus, 64, (R-Kalispell) reached a deal with prosecutors in November, more than a year after an Aug. 27, 2009, Flathead Lake boat crash that injured Barkus, his wife, Kathy, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and two members of Rehberg’s staff as they were on their way back to Bigfork from dining in Lakeside. He entered a plea of no contest Dec. 2 for a felony, though Malta District Judge John McKeon has until at least Jan. 20 to decide whether or not to accept the plea agreement that calls for a three-year deferred sentence, the dismissal of two additional felonies and payment of $4,000 in restitution.
Barkus initially pleaded not guilty to criminal endangerment and two counts of negligent vehicular assault at an arraignment in October 2009.
As happens in the course of a year, Bigfork grieved the loss of some of its residents, including its oldest resident Blanche Seccombe, who died at the tender age of 108.
The life of a former Bigfork High School student was claimed in a June plane crash. Sonny Kless, 25, was the pilot of the light plane with three passengers that went missing June 27. The wreckage of the plane was spotted June 30 in rough terrain just inside the Sanders County line. Also killed were Daily Inter Lake reporters Melissa Weaver and Erika Hoefer and Missoula resident Brian Williams.
Also among the many who passed during the year were Chuck Gough, who co-founded Friends of Bigfork Fire, and bronze sculpture artist Bob Stayton.
Additionally, a number of other events marked Bigfork’s 2010.
-The Ferndale Volunteer Fire Department celebrated its 60th birthday this year. The organization was formed in the spring of 1950 but the official vote took place in the fall of that year. It was born out of discussions that a fire truck, firefighting equipment and a fire hall were needed in the community.
-The Bigfork Cave Club sent representatives to Washington, D.C., in May to accept the 2009 President’s Environmental Youth Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Bigfork High School teacher Hans Bodenhamer and students Tia Bakker and Ernie Cottle attended and gave presentations on the club’s work.
-In June, the auditorium in the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts was dedicated to Don and Jude Thomson at the opening night of the Bigfork Summer Playhouse’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” It is now dubbed the “Thomson Theatre” over both entrances.
-The Bigfork Volunteer Fire Department completed and unveiled its new three-story training facility next to the department’s Echo Lake station in June. Friends of Bigfork Fire raised more than $120,000 over the past couple of years to fund the building’s construction.
-The Northwest Montana News Network contributed to this report.