Tromping along Kalispell’s urban streets – the hot asphalt, the droning traffic – like many, I see an uncertain future. More shops are springing up, but the vacancies loom large as proof of wasted infrastructure; the one next to the Beacon office on Main Street is ample evidence.
Business owners interviewed earlier this month about downtown’s fate are optimistic. There’s reason to be. Red’s Wines & Blues, although on the selling block, has reopened and will continue in some capacity. Coffee shops, bistros and clothing stores are thriving. Parking is still unbearable, which, at least, means downtown is attracting a crowd.
Kalispell is unique, flanked by two resort communities that have cornered the quaint-business market. Tourists flock to both Whitefish and Bigfork eager to browse the quiet streets and spend their vacation stipends. In contrast, a highway cuts through the heart of downtown Kalispell, an inconvenient city where many who cram its roads are simply slowed by the traffic lights.
But that may change. A new planned bypass to be built on U.S. Highway 93 should alleviate the noise and traffic that plague the Flathead Valley’s largest city. Travelers and truckers will be able to sidestep us. Kalispell, instead of a speed bump, could become a destination again. You might be able to stand on Main Street and have a conversation with someone.
But if that optimism were realized, as those of us who work and live here hope, and more stores arrive, it would be a shame to mimic our neighbors. To each town its own, and in a county with two resort-oriented communities, Kalispell can thrive by embracing its past and shrugging off the slight chip on its shoulder that followed the railroad’s move north 100 years ago.
Kalispell is still ruggedly Montanan; a place where sage brush still blows, grain silos loom over coffee huts and camouflage ATVs roar down Main Street. The storefronts don’t all match.
Nor should they. The perfection of the place I come from, Bozeman, was exhausting. Arguments erupted over what businesses could move in downtown and where a parking garage should be built and who would fund it. Closer to home, it took a great deal of politicking to allow the Safeway to expand in Whitefish. Communities that cater heavily to tourists, I suppose, have to worry more about cultivating a neat and inviting appearance. Kalispell could use a manicure, but not a complete makeover at the expense of its personality.
In last week’s Beacon Nancy Patteri, owner of Coco & Boo in downtown, stressed that Kalispell needs to cater to its locals. And, while living here four months I don’t yet consider myself one, I understand what she means. Whitefish and Bigfork both thrive by attracting tourists with street appeal and businesses that hawk tourist-oriented goods. Kalispell, with more developments apt to bring more customers, certainly has the potential to grow into a nicer suit. Or, it could just brush off the corduroy one it has in the closet.
Just 30 years ago, hundreds, if not thousands of people, strolled the streets of Kalispell for the “Crazy Day” sidewalk sales. Montana has enough niche resort cities. Instead, Kalispell would do well to brush off its Wranglers to attract the thousands who once considered it the center of commerce in the Flathead – by being authentic, by being itself.
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