By MICHAEL JAMISON
WEST GLACIER (AP) - If you had driven through West Glacier 10 or 15 years back and then drove through again more recently, you could hardly help but be struck by the number of new buildings, new businesses, new homes.
The economy, by all accounts, is on the rise in this popular gateway to Glacier National Park.
But at the same time, locals say, their community is on the decline.
''What community? That's what I ask. West Glacier has become very unique in that I just don't feel any real sense of community here anymore,'' said Carolyn Wieringa.
Wieringa has long been the teacher at the town's elementary school, where the number of local kids attending has fallen from more than 60 to about a dozen.
''It's becoming very apparent that we're losing that small-town feel,'' Wieringa said.
Part of the change, locals agree, began when Glacier Park officials closed park housing to employees and their families. It was part of a nationwide push to discourage Park Service workers from taking up residence in the parks, opening rental housing for ''seasonals'' and visiting researchers.
But when the employees left, Sharon Bengston said, so did much of the glue that held together West Glacier's community of locals.
''It really hurt the school'' when the families moved out, she said, ''and the school was the community in many ways.''
A second change that she believes continues to undermine the community is the arrival of second-home owners. Nearly everyone in West Glacier had full-time neighbors a decade ago. Now many year-round residents feel a bit like islands, with empty houses on either side.
The new owners come for a week now and then, but mostly their homes are dark.
Those two forces, Bengston said, have meant fewer kids, and fewer kids means fewer reasons to get together with neighbors.
''That's what you're seeing here, for sure,'' she said.
Gone are the sledding parties, the ice skating parties, the card parties and the dances and the potluck dinners. Gone is the tiny ski hill. Gone are the Christmas parties and the St. Patrick's Day gatherings and the harvest festival.
Martha Sloan remembers Friday nights at the community center, when the park supplied the roller skates and the hardwood floor and the locals provided the fun.
''There used to be a lot of community activity,'' Sloan said, ''but there's not anymore.''
Sloan has known West Glacier all her life, some 80 years. Her parents homesteaded here back in 1914, and she worked in the park for 47 years.
Today, Sloan goes to church down the road in Columbia Falls, because there's no longer a church to go to in West Glacier.
''It's a bad thing,'' she said. ''Neighbors used to support each other, but we don't have that anymore. It just isn't here.''
Actually, there are issues that occasionally pull the town back together, ''but it has to be a crisis.''
''When the school burned down, there was a real coming together,'' Bengston said. ''It was like a rejuvenation of community. It was incredible.''
Folks in West Glacier fought to retain an elementary school there, fought to raise money and to rebuild. They held fund-raisers, work parties, potlucks. They started a PTA.
But that was in the mid-1980s, when more people still lived here year-round and more families stayed in park housing.
The PTA has long since unraveled and this year, for the first time in Sloan's long memory, a school levy failed.
When real estate sells nowadays, she said, it tends to sell for a lot of money, more than young families can afford. And those moving in are of an entirely new demographic - older, wealthier, more mobile.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show median home prices in scenic West Glacier about 50 percent higher than the state average. They also show a vacancy rate of more than 50 percent, compared with a statewide average of about 10 percent.
That's because the retirees buying the homes don't live there but for a few weeks in the year, Bengston said. Of the 400 or so who own homes in West Glacier, ''a whole bunch don't really live here.''
Of course, it's anything but a ghost town in the summer, when a couple million visitors flow through the park. Sloan sits in a crowded cafe on the main drag, the week before Independence Day, and doesn't recognize a single face.
A couple summers back, the Robert fire fanned the flames of neighborhood for a while, said resident Ann Fagre, and the community center filled as the wildfire bore down on the town.
And an ongoing land-use planning process is bringing people together, with packed meetings and widespread general interest.
''But it has to be something traumatic to get us together,'' Sloan said, ''not something social.''
Sloan and others miss the sense of neighborliness in their isolated enclave, and believe they could better deal with all things traumatic if they were starting from a shared sense of community.
But no one seems to know how to get that back.
''If we could organize something for the locals, I think people would show up,'' Bengston said. ''They want to know their neighbors.''
But even she doesn't know who might organize such an event. A few years back, Bengston gave up trying to rally the community Christmas program.
As a member of the school board and veteran of the days when the elementary burned down, she thinks the hope might reside with the school.
''We try,'' said teacher Wieringa, ''but it's not easy.''
The school still puts on a Christmas program, open to all, still delivers May Day baskets, still brings the popular Missoula Children's Theatre to town.
But a recent community reading day was canceled, she said, because no one showed up.
The school remains the hub, she said, but the spokes are starting to come loose. The recent levy defeat was an eye opener, a sign that at least some of the newcomers aren't interested in elementary education to the degree that the local families once were.
''The school,'' Fagre admits, ''used to be much more of a meeting place than it is now.''
The new hub, she said, is the post office, known simply as the PO (pronounced Poe).
''Meet me at the PO,'' Fagre laughs. ''Everyone meets at the PO. That's where the community is.''
The new buildings, new homes, crackling real estate market and bustling summer season are very real, Sloan said, but they are also a sort of camouflage, masking the deterioration of the town.
''This community is on the decline,'' she said. ''It's very sad. It's just slipping away.''
And the strange thing is, no one really wants to see it go.
Sloan, for one, loves her tiny town, and ''wouldn't trade it for anything.''
''We just need to get organized,'' Sloan said. But she, like others who agree with her, freely admits, ''I wouldn't know how to start something like that.
''Maybe someone else has an idea.''