The Future of the Flathead

By Beacon Staff

Over the past decade, life in the Flathead has been defined by rapid growth. And in coming years change will remain the defining characteristic of our region. It will come in expanded city boundaries – large commercial growth to the north and south, residential booms to the south and west. In 3,000-home subdivisions; some unaffordable for many who work here. In a bypass that sends the 110,000 county residents projected to live here around downtown Kalispell. In medical breakthroughs – home diagnostics, pharmacology and artificial parts. In new schools, more flights, an expanded college and an older population.

Flathead County has grown by about 25 percent over the last decade. It’s home to more than 85,000 people. Only Missoula and Yellowstone counties have more Montanans. It’s easy to see what attracts people here – a national park, the West’s largest freshwater lake and a renowned ski resort – but with growth, it also becomes harder to accommodate newcomers with roads, city services and housing.

Like others before them, current Flathead County and Kalispell officials say they are trying to “look into the crystal ball” to predict growth – where it is likely to happen, when it is likely to happen and by how much.

What will we look like in 20 years? No one can say for sure. But as growth is sure to continue, community leaders are already shaping what the valley will become.

Population and Industry

“We’ve (Kalispell) been growing at about 5 percent per year for the past six years; 5 percent in a decade would be a lot,” Tom Jentz, Kalispell city planning director, said. “From 1950 to 2000 we were thought of as a 10,000-person city. In 50 years we grew as much as we have in the first five years of this decade.” Jentz expects Kalispell’s population to reach 35,000 in 20 years. By 2025, population estimates show more than 113,000 residents for Flathead County.

Cal Scott, president of the Northwest Montana Realtors Association, said a recent national convention of realtors and economists named Montana the No. 2 most desirable place to live. “The people that are buying here, about 72 percent come from outside of Montana and they’re predominately Baby Boomers, the first of whom turned 60 last year. It’s a wants market versus a needs market; people are coming here buying and spending money because they want to, not because they need to, and they have the money to do that.”

Population numbers aren’t the only statistics booming: From 1970 to 2000 the number of jobs in Flathead County more than tripled, from 15,627 to 49,278 in 2000.

Tony Prato, an economics professor from the University of Missouri-Columbia, has spent the last four years studying alternative futures for economic growth and land use. His study shows that several industries in Flathead County will show major growth. Mining industries will lead the way at 4 percent growth, services at 3 percent and government and construction around 2.5 percent growth. However, farming and ranching projections show only 0.08 percent growth, and agricultural, forestry and fishery industries show a decline of 0.16 percent.

Based on forecasts from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Montana Department of Commerce, Kalispell can expect to see an additional 30,500 jobs by 2030.

Housing and Infrastructure

Population and economic growth require planning for accommodations now: Where will 15,000 more people live? Drive? Work?

Planners are laying the groundwork for Kalispell city limits as far north as Church Drive and Birch Road; south to Rocky Cliff Drive; west to West Springcreek Road; and east to the Flathead River. Studies for planning city services ranging from police and fire protection to sewer, water and storm systems in this area are underway.

Jentz said the city has already extended out to these limits with annexations: “In the last 12 months, the city has added three square miles, increasing city limits by 30 percent in a year.” The city of Kalispell can approve a request for annexation without consultation from the county, though the city frequently sends a referral to the county for comment. Silverbrook subdivision along Church Drive has already broken ground and commercial buildings line the southern planning boundaries. The city’s plan for the future is infill. “Now that we’ve extended outward, the focus will be high density housing – smaller lots, townhouses, condos,” Jentz said, “and more amenities: parks, trail systems, city services.”

Jentz used Starling, a recently approved subdivision, as an example of what the city is looking for, citing the development’s extensive parks and trails system and its various housing options. Where 20 years ago, the city was approving 120 homes on 5-acre lots, Starling will now build 3,000 homes on just over one square mile. If Starling was the biggest the city has seen, it won’t be the last.

Scott said that forcing urban concentration curtails development and worried that many would find themselves unable to afford a home in or around Kalispell: “What we have is a crisis in workforce housing. We don’t have even close to sufficient workforce housing for our teachers, our firemen, police, or city and county employees – the people we rely on to sustain our community can not afford to buy a home in that market.” People say it’s a buyer’s market, he added, but “Bull, unless you’re looking to buy over $250,000, it’s not.”

But Jentz said high-density housing that combines everything from condos to large family townhouses, provides affordable housing across economic classes and maintains a community feel. “People have a fear that high-density housing means an overnight ghetto with a dense population and no amenities. Our goal isn’t to isolate one group, but to create neighborhoods with families, grandparents, retirees, professionals.”

The financial strain caused by new growth and development will be relieved by impact fees, assessed to the builder. Jentz said the city estimates the cost of one new home on the city’s services at about $6,300. “The people responsible for the impact should pay for it, not the people who have lived here for fifty years and have been paying for expansions year after year. This is what Kalispell should’ve had from day one.”


Jim Oliverson, vice president of Kalispell Regional Medical Center, can’t even begin to imagine the changes the city’s largest employer will see in the next 20 years. “If you look back, the amount of change we’ve seen in the past 20 years, I expect to see occur over just the coming 10 years. It’s really hard to look out except that you know there will be huge strides in the fields of diagnostics, pharmacology, artificial parts, education. Bottom line, strides in our ability to keep people healthier and living longer.”

But, there’s one area – perhaps the most important one – where Oliverson doesn’t see progress: the healthcare system. “We know the technology will get better, but who is going to pay for it? How will we ensure access to it? The strain on the medical system and society is going to continue to grow.”

As the area’s population ages, Oliverson said the ability to keep people alive longer will increase¬¬. Average life expectancy is expected to be as high as age 81 in 2020, he said, but with that ability comes added strain. His solution is improving the prevention of illness and more serious medical conditions. “People need to take some personal responsibility for their healthcare needs by making healthy choices and taking advantage of diagnostics, especially as that technology grows,” Oliverson said.


Glacier Park International Airport had a 30-year plan; then, Sept. 11, 2001 changed the entire industry. “We finished our master plan in 2001, and thought that would be good for quite a while, but then that plan basically became obsolete,” Cindi Martin, airport director, said. The airport is working on its revision.

One thing remained consistent in the industry, though: Martin said, that airport provides a “consumer good really when it gets right down to it, and as the area’s business and population grows we’ll see a growth in demand.” In 2005, the airport served a record 190,000 passengers, before a drop to 175,000 in 2006. So far this year, the airport’s growth is 8.5 percent over this time last year. The 2001 master plan predicted an average 5.5 percent annual growth rate.

Martin said the upward trend doesn’t necessarily mean a need for new facilities: “If we look at the current capacity here at the airport, we aren’t going to have to make changes,” she said. “The size of aircraft that makes sense for this market isn’t going to change.” Another element Martin predicts will remain unchanged: “The security regulations we have in place won’t be relaxed.”


The state’s two-year budgeting process for schools doesn’t lend itself to long-term financial planning, Todd Watkins, School District 5’s finance and budget director, said. Instead, the school district’s budget runs on an annual basis. “The political situation makes it difficult, but what’s more difficult is anticipating enrollment. The traditional way just doesn’t work here; normally, you can work with birth rates and population, but how do you predict who’s going to move into a subdivision?”

This year enrollment spiked in kindergarten through eighth grade, with an increase of about 180 students, but growth remained moderate in the high school, with about 20 more students. Full day kindergarten, including a record class of 330 kindergartners this year, has filled the elementary schools. Watkins said future building projects may be considered to fill that need.

Jane Karas, president of Flathead Valley Community College, is revisiting its 30-year master plan this year, but expects enrollment to continue growing. FVCC saw a 7 percent enrollment increase in credit programs this year and grew at an even higher rate in noncredit classes, she said. “There are certainly going to be many more changes in the valley in the coming years. Our goal as a community college will be to try to predict needs as best we can, but certainly to adapt to those changes quickly as they occur.”

Like everyone, Karas is preparing for growth. What, exactly, we look like can’t be predicted, but the fact remains that the area has been “discovered” and tremendous growth is inevitable. Now is a critical juncture for deciding what the face of the Flathead’s changing landscape will look like.

See the related article: Economist Maps Out Valley’s Alternative Futures.