Don Scharfe remembers the “Crazy Day” sidewalk sales in the 1970s: hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people strolling through downtown Kalispell, merchants hawking their goods on the sidewalk and Flathead’s sprawling community coming together in the heart of its biggest town.
It wasn’t just about finding cheap deals – it was about downtown.
“Everything was here in the 70s,” said Scharfe, owner of Rocky Mountain
Outfitter. “Then it went from everything to almost nothing.”
Now business owners believe downtown is making a comeback, though it is a far cry from its heyday.
Stores like Coco & Boo, DeLovely, Stone Chair and the Lilac Lizard have ushered in a renewed vibrancy among the scattered vacant buildings in downtown Kalispell. Some have been here for years. Others are brand new. The important thing, shop owners say, is that they’re all here at the same time.
Shop owners agree that downtown needs more specialty retail shops. Offices fill vacancies, but don’t attract people. People want shops and not any shop will do. It must offer something that box stores don’t.
While Kalispell still has a number of downtown vacancies, up the road in Whitefish there is only one, said Sheila Bowen, president of Whitefish’s Chamber of Commerce. She said Whitefish’s community expects specialty boutique shops and has come to think of them as traditional. Also, Whitefish has no box stores and its downtown is compact, which Bowen said helps, whereas Kalispell’s is spread out and harder to navigate.
“You get to walk one mile,” Bowen said, “and hit all the specialty stores between downtown and the railroad district.”
DeLovely’s owner Tobi Ann Ewalt acknowledges that Whitefish and Bigfork have more progressive downtowns, but Kalispell is getting better.
“Kalispell is surrounded by it,” she said. “But people are starting to catch on to trends a little faster here.”
Just around the corner from DeLovely, Coco & Boo sells “hip” clothing, décor and a variety of others items ranging from an antique telephone to all-natural soap. It is unlike anything else in Kalispell.
“Hip is important,” owner Nancy Patteri said. “We’re lacking in the hip department (in Kalispell).”
DeLovely sells contemporary women’s clothing, the Stone Chair has an arrangement of quirky novelty items and a customer can walk out of the Lilac Lizard with a funny bumper sticker and a tattoo. This is a new age for “mom and pop” shops, but the simple concept remains the same: Offer something that people want, and business will be good.
“How do you get people downtown?” Scharfe said. “If it’s a good store, people will come.”
Coco & Boo and DeLovely are the newest members of Kalispell’s downtown revival club. They opened in April and February, respectively. Scharfe said the longest-running stores are Books West, Norm’s News/Western Outdoor, Wheeler’s Jewelry and his Rocky Mountain Outfitter, which he has owned for 31 years. Wheaton’s opened its doors in 1918.
The Lilac Lizard has served downtown for eight years, a noteworthy lifespan in Kalispell. Co-owner Lora Morris said the key is to always be unique and adapt when that uniqueness fades. More businesses are realizing this, she said, and as a result downtown is on the verge of a boom.
“You can’t compete with big box,” she said. “There’s no point in complaining about it. You just have to do something about it.”
Lilac Lizard started out as a teenage clothing store, she said, but once U.S. 93 expanded, she adapted. Now it focuses more on body jewelry and tattooing, though it still has an array of clothing and miscellaneous items.
Basically, DeLovely’s Ewalt said, a shop needs to give customers a reason to go downtown.
“You sell 50 pants at Maurice’s,” she said. “Then there’s 50 women walking around in Kalispell with the same pants.”
It is also important for downtown shops to focus on locals, Patteri said.
“I think a big mistake that is made,” she said, “is catering more to tourists. (Stores) kind of forget about the locals.”
Patteri is a Kalispell native who grew up with a dearth of shopping opportunities. She said people traditionally looked to Missoula and Spokane for their shopping needs, but can now find more retail diversity in Kalispell.
Bill Goodman, who recently sold Red’s Wines and Blues, believes downtown is much healthier than two years ago when he opened up the popular bar.
“People are saying, ‘Downtown is not going to die, let’s invest in it,’” he said.
He cited poor management as the reason for downtown vacancies, not a lack of appeal for potential investors. When he temporarily closed Red’s before selling it, Goodman said it was his fault. The appeal was there, as evidenced in the large nightly turnouts.
While the capacity for a downtown boom is apparent, shop owners described various obstacles. One is Kalispell’s reluctance to embrace new stores. Another obstacle is the imbalance of professional businesses to retail shops. Then there’s the traffic. Shop owners are excited about the bypass.
“(Downtown) is dirty and it’s loud,” Scharfe said.
Scharfe and others said people don’t want to be downtown when there’s a highway running through it. Restaurants are particularly affected, which in turn hurts retail shops because dining options bring shoppers to their area.
“Outdoor dining creates a buzz,” he said. “We could do that with a bypass.”
Downtown businesses often band together. Scharfe said Kalispell’s downtown shops have more informal relationships than in some towns. Though he is technically a member of the Kalispell Downtown Association, he has little to do with it.
Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, said downtown is as enticing as ever, pointing out that North Bay Grille is among the significant newcomers.
“(Downtown) is still the financial center – and historical and cultural center – of the valley,” he said.
In addition to North Bay Grille, the presence of unique and reasonably priced restaurants like JD Morrell’s and the Knead Café helps give downtown extra color. Ceres Bakery is popular as well. The Knead has survived for eight years in its current location while other dining spots downtown have sputtered and disappeared. Shop owners said they would like to see more restaurants with the ability to adapt and endure.
Scharfe doesn’t believe Kalispell’s downtown will ever rival that of cities like Missoula and Bozeman, which have universities. But he believes it has plenty of room to grow, as there are always entrepreneurs who want to be downtown for no other reason than that they love downtown.
Patteri said she is one of them.
“I wanted to be downtown,” she said. “If I couldn’t be downtown, then I wouldn’t have done it.”