When Kalispell City Council members emerged from City Hall in the early morning of Jan. 23, after five hours of deliberation, they had approved the largest commercial development in the history of Flathead County – a project for which the construction alone will take 20 years to complete.
After years of public debate, the dimensions of the Glacier Town Center are, by now, as well known as they are ambitious: 485 acres of commercial and residential development; 1.8 million square feet of retail and commercial space, with a 577,000-square-foot shopping complex anchored by three stores of about 100,000 square feet each; 632 new homes; an estimated $600,000 in annual tax revenues for the city and 70 acres of park land.
Eight years after its initial proposal, groundbreaking is set to happen by this summer, barring any unforeseen obstacles. The Glacier Town Center’s impact on the valley will be felt in numerous ways, but the project immediately raises three questions: its impact on downtown, the future of U.S. Highway 93, and how the development will fit into Kalispell’s exploding north end.
The Exploding North Side
Glacier Town Center will more than double north Kalispell’s commercial district – even after Hutton Ranch is completed. Yet Wolford’s project is just one of several massive developments approved in that area.
Consider Starling, one mile west and south, a project roughly equal to downtown Kalispell in size. Approved in August, the Starling development will have 3,000 new homes on a square mile of land, to be built over the next 20 to 30 years. Just east of Starling, the Bloomstone project sits on recently sold state land, behind the Kidsport Complex. Though still in the early stages of the application process, if approved Bloomstone will have around 700 new homes. North of Glacier High School, the Westview Estates subdivision will have around 150 new homes.
Immediately north of Glacier Town Center’s site, the Valley Ranch development will have 320 housing units. Just across U.S. 93, Stillwater Estates will probably have somewhere in the ballpark of 500 homes on its 180 acres. Immediately north, Silverbrook Estates will have around 530 new homes on 330 acres, with three acres of commercial development. And that’s just in the city.
In the county north of Kalispell, residents recently banded together and formed the Riverdale Neighborhood Plan. While not yet officially approved, the plan paves the way for the 3,000 acres of agricultural land to eventually be zoned residential and commercial. Comprised of mixed use and residential land, the plans projects a population of anywhere between 6,200 and 10,600 if built out – though no developers have stepped forward yet.
The Original ‘Lifestyle Center’
The immediate reaction of many in downtown Kalispell’s business community to Glacier Town Center’s approval was not concern that an influx of new chain businesses could harm the city’s oldest commercial district, but rather that the economic additions would benefit everyone.
“I think any business development in the Flathead Valley should help downtown Kalispell,” said Tom McElwain, president of the Kalispell Downtown Association.
Lad Barney, Director of the Small Business Development Center for Northwest Montana, is optimistic that Wolford’s project will keep people from traveling to Missoula or Spokane for perceived better shopping. “I don’t doubt that there will be some businesses that are hurt by the increased competition,” Barney said. “Increased competition always puts some businesses in a re-thinking position, and they just have to respond to that.”
Debbie Snyder, owner of Flowers by Hansen, thinks new development will attract a broader range of tourists who will check out north Kalispell and then head south, with downtown reaping the benefits of Glacier Town Center. “I’m not afraid of it at all,” she added.
The Stoplight Fight
The biggest objection to Glacier Town Center was the stoplights developers proposed adding to two of its three entrances along U.S. 93. Opponents argued the design plans needed to be altered to encompass an overpass or roundabouts, or should be kicked back to the drawing board for further study. But the Kalispell City Council chose not to engage those questions, and made few changes to the plans Wolford proposed. It now falls on the Montana Department of Transportation to determine whether added stoplights on U.S. 93 are the best option.
“We’ve conceptually agreed with the developer’s proposal for two signals,” said Dwane Kailey, Missoula District Administrator for MDT, but added, “We will talk to the developer about roundabouts.”
Kailey wouldn’t rule out anything, but the high cost of overpasses and property that would have to be purchased from neighboring landowners makes it unlikely the MDT would choose that option. Wolford’s team must now submit a final application and environmental impact document for an assessment process that can take several months for MDT’s engineers to study. While he accepts public comment during the assessment process, Kailey said he does not focus on whether a particular project is controversial: “To me, it is all about the safety of the traveling public and that’s what I’m looking at.”
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