Just six years ago, in 2011, a recession lingered and the construction industry was having another soft year. There were a few dozen housing starts in Whitefish — most paid for by Canadians. In Kalispell, the planning director was lamenting a sluggish residential market impacted by foreclosures and vacant homes.
On the commercial side, things weren’t much better.
Sizing up the state of the industry, a local builder said, “We’re never going to get a boom again. But we’re still not where I think normal would be.”
At the time, few could disagree with him. It seemed large slabs of asphalt on the north side of Kalispell would remain vacant forever. Previously proposed subdivisions would remain fields of grass.
Even when the market began to turn in 2014, the remaining local contractors were leery. The others, many from out of state who arrived to capitalize on the exploding growth, had closed up shop and left the valley altogether.
By then, building in both the residential and commercial sectors had picked up significantly. But cautious optimism was coupled with a question: Could it last?
Three years later, it has, so far.
On the residential side, construction activity has increased across the valley. And existing home sales and lack of inventory, especially on the more affordable end of the market, indicate more houses are needed.
There were 288 residential sales in the first three months of the year, just 1 percent lower than last year’s near-record number. But this April the overall inventory of homes is 33 percent lower than last year. And of the homes on the market, just 16.2 percent of active listings were priced below the median sold price of $260,250.
Commercial building is also on roll. Over the last few years, Kalispell has been transformed, especially on the north side. And it’s not done yet. In 2017, the city could surpass last year’s $129 million worth of new development with much of that in the form of large projects, some of which are already underway.
This year in Kalispell alone, contractors are expected to break ground on a new elementary school, 55-unit apartment building, two large car dealerships and a number of subdivisions. Meanwhile, the hospital continues its multi-million dollar expansion, retail stores continue to fill in on the north end and Flathead Valley Community College is nearing completion of its first on-campus housing facility.
Contractors who were humbled by an economic downturn are now scrambling for employees as they try to keep pace. Long-vacant lots and fields are now construction zones. The growth can partially be attributed to an improved economy, but also to an influx of people.
Between to 2015 and 2016, Flathead County’s population added more than 2,000 people, the largest year-over-year increase in a decade as the number of county residents marches toward 100,000. Only Gallatin County is growing at a faster rate.
The boom many of us never thought would return, to the surprise of many, has returned. Another big construction season has begun in earnest. It blends into the landscape now. The snow melts, the dirt starts moving and the frames go up.
Just six years ago, the county’s jobless rate was well above 10 percent, and we were wondering when we were going to get back to normal. Instead, since then, another boom has transformed the valley. And, so far, there is no end in sight.