POLSON - A veterans park and an outdoor stage and amphitheater will take up most of the water frontage on 47 acres of county land at the old Regatta Grounds in Polson, a "master plan" for the area by the property's private lease-holder said.
But a public boat launch sought by the city of Polson, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the private Salish Point Committee is incompatible with the plan, said Polson Fairgrounds Inc., which presented the document to city and county officials this week.
PFI is a nonprofit group of volunteers that has controlled and maintained the property for the better part of two decades through its lease with the Lake County Commission.
The group was looking favorably on a boat launch until April, when the makeup of its governing board changed after the annual election of officers. Since then, PFI has joined Commissioner Mike Hutchin, who also is a member of the group, in opposing public boating access on the land.
The master plan was made public in an Aug. 4 letter to Polson Mayor Randy Ingram from PFI president Brian Jones. Some of PFI's plans for the property were discussed Wednesday at a meeting of Ingram, Tom McDonald of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the three Lake County commissioners and PFI representative Bill Witts.
McDonald and Ingram, both members of the Salish Point Committee, have been pressing the county to allow a boat launch at the site as part of the tribes' and city's integrated plan for recreational improvements on Salish Point.
The tribes have reserved $200,000 or more that could be used for such recreational or public-access projects. But so far, the county commission has refused to allow the Regatta Grounds into the mix, and at least one member, Hutchin, is adamantly against a public boat launch. He said such public access is more appropriate on tribal or city-owned land in Polson.
At Wednesday's meeting, Ingram said he was disturbed that PFI's master plan for the land could go forward without any public meetings or public comment.
"The 47 acres of public land which the public is now restricted from using represents a huge step for Polson's future," Ingram said. "It is a mistake for any of us to make decisions about this property without public input."
But Witts said public meetings on the future of PFI's leased property are neither necessary nor advisable.
"Our board has hashed this out," Witts said. "We've come to our decision. We would object to public meetings," Witts said.
Witts said PFI is aggressively recruiting entertainment productions and other programs to be held at the Regatta Grounds year-round. These events would make a boat launch incompatible. He said recent ideas include a monster truck show and country and western concerts with national stars.
A proposed 700-seat community center, contingent upon a $1 million federal grant, could draw conventions and meetings to the Polson area - meetings that cannot now be accommodated, even at the tribally owned KwaTaqNuk resort.
"We've figured out how we can draw big names with very few dollars," he said. Witts told the commissioners and Ingram that PFI has already given permission to two local veterans groups to begin development of their planned armed services memorial on the site's shoreline. He said that work can start immediately, be finished by next year and the veterans have $25,000 committed to construction.
The memorial will feature a 150-foot lighted flagpole and perhaps a pavilion where veterans could hold social events or barbecues.
"The veterans area will front the river on the 200 feet of the eastern edge of the property. … The veterans will install the tallest U.S. flagpole in Montana on the site and surround the base of the pole with a 40-foot awesome granite base," the letter describing the master plan states.
County Commission Chairman Paddy Trusler said that in general he was not opposed to public meetings on lakeshore recreation planning, but he believed discussing the future of the Regatta Grounds were too limited in scope. He suggested that the tribal, county and city governments ask the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to come in as a neutral party to evaluate various proposals.
Hutchin objected, saying the agency couldn't be neutral because it was already committed to more public access for boating on the lake. He later agreed to the evaluation, as long as a neutral party could be found and developable tribal property adjacent to the Regatta Grounds is included.
Hutchin and PFI contend that the tribe and city already have plenty of land to use for a boat launch.
The tribes and city agree that they do have lakeshore property available, but say it lacks the "depth" that the Regatta Grounds offers in order to provide parking for boat trailers.
McDonald said he would discuss the suggestion of bringing in a neutral party and of expanding the scope of the evaluation to include tribal properties with the Salish Point Committee and the tribal council.
Meanwhile, Hutchin said he will contact Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Kalispell to see if the agency wants to join the effort.
As for the PFI master plan, the commissioners have taken it under advisement.
Trusler said he does not believe that PFI will begin development of the Regatta Grounds without the county commissioners' permission, despite the group's contention that it's acting in the best interest of Lake County and its citizens.
Ingram said that a neutral evaluation may be useful.
"The ultimate goal is improving the overall access to Flathead Lake," he said. "If the outcome points to the Regatta Grounds being the ideal site for a boat launching facility, I hope that will move us forward in that direction and we don't just get another 'no' from the county at the end of the process."