Make-or-Break Time for Wolford Development

By Beacon Staff

If the Kalispell City Council grants approval Tuesday night, the controversial Glacier Town Center will have passed its biggest hurdle – but with months of debate over traffic concerns related to the development still unresolved, it’s difficult to see what solution might manifest itself over the next day.

That isn’t to say people aren’t working on it. Monday night, Citizens for a Better Flathead is staging a presentation by national transportation and community planning expert Dan Burden at the Red Lion Hotel at 7 p.m. Burden assisted with the redesign of Highway 35 where it passes through Bigfork, and his current talk will focus on a visual tour of the north Kalispell area and offer solution to potential future traffic problems.

Proposed by Wolford Development Montana, Glacier Town Center is a 485-acre commercial and residential development that would go up between U.S. Highway 93 North and Whitefish Stage Road, bordered by West Reserve Drive to the south. Its 191-acre first phase consists of a “lifestyle center,” essentially an outdoor shopping mall located off of U.S. 93.

The composition of the development itself has been hashed out for years – with Wolford currently offering more park space than is typical of a development that size, the donation of five acres for a community center, and significant road expansion and improvement to facilitate travel throughout north Kalispell. Supporters of Wolford say the new shopping and office space would provide economic growth, jobs, and keep people from driving to Missoula and Spokane, Wash., for better shopping opportunities. It would also likely draw many Canadians down to shop as well.

But Glacier Town Center’s primary sticking point – through several planning board hearings that failed to reach a conclusion – is the proposal by Wolford to install two new stoplights on U.S. 93, north of West Reserve. These new stoplights conflict with the city’s draft transportation plan, and its goal to keep U.S. 93 a rural, fast-moving road. In meetings, Chad Wolford, son of James “Bucky” Wolford, has said the construction of ramps and overpasses, instead of stoplights, would be so expensive as to be a dealbreaker for the project. Wolford’s traffic engineer, Kathleen Krager, has repeatedly made the case that added stoplights are the safest alternative for traffic north of the West Reserve – U.S. 93 intersection.

But opponents of the added stoplights, led primarily by Mayre Flowers, executive director of Citizens for a Better Flathead, have said that it makes no sense for the expensive, federally-funded Kalispell bypass to help U.S. 93 traffic avoid the delays of intersections through downtown Kalispell only to dump that traffic into newly constructed stoplights at the entrances to the Glacier Town Center. At the most recent Jan. 7 city hearing on the project, Flowers also urged the council to adopt the city’s draft transportation plan, impose transportation impact fees and work out a plan to jointly pay for an overpass, allowing entrance to the development without stoplights.

Critics of Wolford’s stoplight proposal also warn that opening the door to more stoplights on U.S. 93 between Kalispell and Whitefish will turn that corridor into a traffic-clogged disaster resembling the commercial section of Reserve Street in Missoula.

By the time most development projects come before the city council, they have already been tweaked and refined enough by the planning board and city planning staff that the big obstacles have been eliminated. That is not the case when it comes to the U.S. 93 stoplights and Glacier Town Center. Until Tuesday night – when the council can choose to begin annexation and approval of initial development plans – or put off the decision for further study, the fate of the Wolford project remains unclear.

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