Columbia Falls is enjoying healthy economic growth as the tourism industry benefits local businesses and families increasingly move into town.
Since 2010, the city has added more than 918 residents, a 14.3 percent growth rate, which is one of the highest rates in the state alongside Whitefish and Kalispell.
Outdoor recreation and tourism have fueled healthy economic gains in a community that has been hit hard by shrinking industrial sectors. Weyerhaeuser Co. closed its mills and administrative offices in recent years, but the news that SmartLam is purchasing one of the former sawmill sites and efforts to revitalize an industrial yard have provided optimism that industry is poised for a local rebound.
With these factors in play, Columbia Falls has four candidates vying for three seats on the city council. There is also a contested mayoral race for the first time in 16 years.
The Beacon is publishing its second series of questionnaires with candidates for municipal elections this fall. Last week the Beacon featured Kalispell’s council candidates and this week Columbia Falls’ candidates are showcased.
Election Day is Nov. 7 and absentee ballots are being mailed Oct. 18.
Incumbent mayor Don Barnhart will face challenger John Rallis. It will be the town’s first contested mayoral race since 2001, when Gary Hall and Claudette Hohn squared off.
Incumbent city councilors Mike Shepard and Jennifer Lovering filed for re-election alongside challengers Stephen Duffy and Paula Robinson. Incumbent councilor Dave Petersen, whose term is expiring, did not file for re-election. The top three vote-getters in the council race will be elected to four-year terms.
The Columbia Falls City Council features six councilors and the mayor, who serve as the legislative body, while the city manager oversees daily operations.
1. Why are you running and what makes you a strong candidate?
2. What role should the city of Columbia Falls play in helping foster business redevelopment? What improvements/projects would you like to see the city tackle along those lines?
3. What are the most pressing issues facing the city?
Columbia Falls City Council
NAME: Paula Robinson
YEARS LIVING IN YOUR CITY: 60
1. I have 24 years of government work experience, 12 years as an elected official. As the past Flathead County Clerk and Recorder/Surveyor/Auditor and Election Administrator I successfully dealt with the challenges of providing good governance to Flathead County taxpayers. For 12 years, I managed the diverse and complex functions of the elected office I held and experienced first-hand the challenges and impacts of working within the confines of stringent government regulations. All of this experience is applicable to service as a Columbia Falls councilor.
I am motivated to run for a council seat because I believe I can make a real contribution to the health and prosperity of Columbia Falls. As a resident of Columbia Falls since 1960, I have witnessed the growth and development of the city and believe, at this time of growth, council decisions will profoundly impact the lives and livelihood of thousands of people. Like so many residents, I love Columbia Falls. I love the history and the people. I love being able to walk or ride my bike to schools, shops, restaurants, events, and places of worship. Columbia Falls is an amazing place to live, work and raise a family. I’ll work to keep it so.
2. Provide clear, transparent and consistent policy – making and planning to its citizens. It’s important for the council to understand effective strategies for supporting and encouraging business development, whether it’s creating space for innovation, cutting red tape or proactively engaging the business community.
In response to what improvements/projects would you like to see the city tackle along those lines: Improve city streets and sidewalks to make walking and bicycling more convenient; provide increased access to jobs, retail, and schools; improve pedestrian and vehicular safety; and improve transportation options that promote a healthy lifestyle.
Utilize Tax Increment District Funding (TIF) to include: improvement of wayfinding signage, lighting projects, and downtown alley improvements.
3. Budget: The biggest challenge is providing services to businesses without increasing taxes. I believe the council is committed to raising the level of service the city provides without raising taxes
Economic Development: The city has small, independent businesses from craft brewers to, bakeries, and spas popping up all along the streets and in the community. I want to work with the council to continue to create an inclusive, economically strong city however I know that there are challenges to overcome.
Police & fire protection: Public safety is always a top priority. The alleviation of crime and keeping community members safe is one of the most critical components of the city.
How would I address them? Passing effective policy, fiscal discipline and transparency are my primary goals if elected.
NAME: Jenny Lovering
OCCUPATION: Columbia Falls High School Social Studies Teacher
YEARS LIVING IN YOUR CITY: 18
1. City government is fascinating to me because of the direct impact it has on our daily lives. I think it is important to model civic participation for both my children and my students because our democracy depends on the involvement of the next generation. As a city councilor, my goal has always been to be accessible to the people of Columbia Falls, both as a listener and as a resource when they have questions or concerns. My job is to listen to the community and try to make good choices on their behalf. I love this city and I’m pretty passionate about and invested in its success.
2. The city government’s job is to provide services and help foster an environment that invites people to live and work here, while managing taxes responsibly. The establishment of the tax increment financing district is a good example of the city using tools that will help improve the aesthetics of the city, which in turn encourages people to do business in Columbia Falls. I was excited to be a part of the “Entrance to Nucleus” committee — redesigning that intersection will guide business downtown, and a member of the Columbia Falls Community Market advisory committee.
I think we need to continue to focus on light industrial development, and to encourage tourists to stop on their way through to utilize our services. However, the city’s strength is its people, and development should be designed to make Columbia Falls great for the people who already live here. I would like to see Columbia Falls become a hub for outdoor recreation both in goods and services. Swan Mountain Outfitters and Lary’s Fly and Supply are examples of businesses that can equally serve residents and tourists. If people want to live here, they will bring their businesses here.
3. We need to manage the growth we are experiencing and not let it manage us. The people who live and work in Columbia Falls should not come second to tourists. While tourism is a vital part of our economy, if Columbia Falls is a place where people want to live and work, then tourists will follow. I worry sometimes that the momentum in Columbia Falls, though amazing, could price out those who are looking to purchase property in the city.
For instance, I am a fan of vacation rentals, because it fills a valuable need for tourists and provides income for property owners, but I have concerns that it could affect affordable housing, which is a necessity if we want to maintain the identity that is Columbia Falls. I am not in support of bringing the detention center to edges of Columbia Falls, not because I am afraid of it, but because I don’t think it fits with the direction in which Columbia Falls is moving. I can think of many projects for which we’ve asked for county support without success — this one is not on the list. A needed new library space, a restored Red Bridge, an improved road on the North Fork, a quiet zone — there never seems to be the time or money for the county to invest in these projects.
NAME: Stephen J. (Steve) Duffy
YEARS LIVING IN YOUR CITY: 13
1. I am running because the growth and development of the city are important to me and I just want to be a part of the conversation.
2. There are individuals, corporations and land developers. etc. who have large amounts of money and are ambitious to invest and grow their position. The city can encourage commitment by presenting an atmosphere of a positive growth plan and evidence of previous success by other investors. Tax relief and preferential treatment are not the answer. This is a desirable, progressive and vibrant city, not to be given away.
3. Pressing issues change from day to day. The city council considers where to spend the taxes collected from its residence and assumes the fiscal responsibility to spend it wisely in accordance to the need of the people i.e hire a new police officer, repair the public pool and effect improvements to the infrastructure such as curb and gutter, sidewalks, water mains, sewer treatment and the list goes on. “Encourage Public Involvement.”
NAME: Michael Shepard
YEARS LIVING IN YOUR CITY: Approaching 40
1. Running again as many of the seasoned citizens demand me to stay on council because I am a longtime, conservative, with lifelong experiences in all phases of management, and thus assist the city in decisions that keep us out of the courts. Many prospective candidates want to do what emotions dictate, but that is where you end up going astray. I consider myself very practical and tend to look at long-term issues, not short term. As I have told many people, be careful what you wish for, as the result may not be what you want. With growth comes the hardest thing to deal with, more people, and their constant bringing of their baggage with them. You join the community, you do not change it to be what you left. Enough said on that. I bring my life work to the committee’s assigned.
2. City’s role is to get out of the way and let things develop. The more people demand the “city” does this or that, the harder it then becomes to advance due to more and more layers. My basic philosophy is KISS … keep it simple stupid. Obviously we have to do what is legal and required by the state and feds, but do it intelligently. Current problem is to allow our small city to continue to be more diversified to assist in the swings of summer to winter for business. There is an actual starvation period if you rely solely on visitors, and it lasts way into the spring. If we could get the “swings” closer to a baseline, it would help us all.
Projects are reflected in the council goals. Sidewalks in our “old end” of town is one of my priorities.
3. Getting close to having no more affordable home building sights, Highway 2 reconstruction (which we had very little input into), water/sewer ongoing upgrades, park development, our fishing pond at River’s End Park, and continuing our close monitoring of the mess at my former employer property CFAC … Next problem is city expansion and how to pay for it, plus closer to a full-time fire department as our population grows. We will approach these one at a time, as a conservative board and work to solve them to the best of our taxpayers’ very precious taxes being spent “intelligently.”
Columbia Falls Mayor
NAME: Don Barnhart
OCCUPATION: Owner, B&F Excavating Co.
YEARS LIVING IN YOUR CITY: All my life
1. I believe my experience as a former department head — city fire chief — seven years as a member of the city council, and two terms as mayor have given me a real understanding of the workings of the council and our role of representing the people of Columbia Falls.
2. The job of keeping the small town feeling that makes Columbia Falls a special place and embracing the changes to the community as we move forward has always been my goal as both council member and mayor. We need to assure the quality of life in this town continues so as to attract good people to live here and business development will follow. The creation of the tax increment district will have a large effect as time goes on.
3. The issues facing the city in the future as we continue to grow are as follows:
— Insuring that the city has the infrastructure to allow for well-planned growth. The city is currently studying the requirements for future growth.
— Maintaining the small-town friendly feeling type of community that makes people want to live here, raise their families here and enjoy life to the fullest.
NAME: John H. Rallis
YEARS LIVING IN YOUR CITY: 9
1. I am running for mayor of Columbia Falls to create industrial jobs and a vibrant business district. I served in the United States Army, honorable discharge with commendations including the Freedom Team salute issued jointly by the U.S. Army for outstanding military service and served for the American Legion for many years. I was a successful entrepreneur in Seattle, Washington. My paper recycling company was purchased by Rabanco. I went to work for Rabanco as the chief executive officer. Later the Pony Express Corporation offered and I accepted a terminal manager position in Everett, Washington. I retired and moved to Columbia Falls in 2008.
2. Columbia Falls has tremendous potential and I am committed to make the city an industrial and business center again. I will create a business environment, expand the city limits, implement a business and occupation tax, and upgrade the business district from U.S. Highway 2, north to Railroad St.