Recasting an Industrial Identity

By Beacon Staff

From industrial to recreational, Columbia Falls is making a shift as community groups and local government officials work to boost the local economy while still preserving the town’s character.

The traditional image of Columbia Falls is enduring, characterized by its role as Flathead Valley’s industrial hub. For generations, the majority of the town’s residents made their living at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. or the Plum Creek and Stoltze lumber companies, weathering each industry’s downturns and thriving during their booms.

It’s the blue-collar town, more salt-of-the-earth types and cowboy bars than resort town, retail hub or artist’s haven. “It’s always been the working class community,” County Commissioner Gary Hall said. “I remember growing up in the Whitefish area you wouldn’t want to get in a fight with guys at a football game in Columbia Falls.”

And residents there will tell you they’re just fine with that image.

“People are fiercely loyal to this community,” Barry Conger, executive director of the First Best Place Task Force, a Columbia Falls citizens group, said. “They’re proud of what it is, and maybe even more proud of what it isn’t.”

But, as the valley’s population has boomed and once-steadfast industries have declined, Columbia Falls hasn’t remained immune from change. Residential development has far outpaced commercial and industrial, leaving the town’s tax base lagging. As the resource-based economy changed, businesses moved from downtown to the commercial strip on U.S. Highway 2.

“It took a long time for people to stop thinking of Columbia Falls as only a plant town,” Conger said. “Now days, though, there are people who live here that when you say ‘the plant,’ they don’t know what you’re talking about. The problem is that the community hasn’t really ever identified an alternative.”

Over the past year, community groups and city officials have been working toward that alternative, moving to revitalize the town’s economy and public amenities, focusing on Columbia Falls’ geographical place as an entrance to Glacier National Park and building its image as a family town and recreation hub. And, in the coming months, area residents will begin to see the results of some of those efforts develop.

In the next four months, the city will pump more than $1 million into roadwork, City Manager Bill Shaw said, and over the next two years, another $4 million will go into improvements at the sewer plant. “The city isn’t just sitting back and watching things happen,” he said. “The sewer isn’t necessarily something the public will notice as much as roads, but for the city government it’s a big step forward.”

The community has begun to push for more amenities in recent years, Shaw said, culminating when the city bought 28 acres of riverfront land north of the U.S. Highway 2 bridge which will be developed into a substantial city park. Those amenities are tough for the city to provide though, he said, when there isn’t commercial and industrial business to boost the budget.

“It’s one of those chicken and the egg things,” he said. “Does the commerce come first and provide the money for the amenities, or do the amenities draw those businesses here? It’s a tough situation.”

And that’s where community groups like the First Best Place Task Force see their niche – helping to bridge the middle ground.

The task force’s goal, Conger said, is to identify projects that would improve the quality of life for the community – with an underlying nod toward economic growth – and fundraising. Its 75-some volunteers have three main initiatives: uptown revitalization on Nucleus Avenue, trail building and developing a community “discovery center.”

The group has eagerly pursued new business owners and shops, including several new antique stores. Kristin Voison, owner of Truby’s Wood-Fired Pizza in Whitefish, will be opening a new restaurant on Nucleus this summer. Last summer, a Columbia Falls resident donated a trail easement across his land at the east end of the Talbott Road bike path. Volunteer work on the trail will begin in the next few months.

But the group’s biggest project is in the heart of the Nucleus Avenue district, at the old First Citizens Bank property that Glacier Bank now owns. Conger said the group expects to finalize a deal with Glacier Bank to buy the block-wide lot within the next two months. If it all goes through, the property would become a city park and the building would be converted into a home for education programs, displays of local history and artifacts and, possibly, the city library – a reason for tourists to come off the highway into the uptown district and a community gathering place.

The changes are numerous, but mostly gradual and manageable, Conger and Shaw said, allowing the community to comprehend what’s happening and feel like they have a voice in where it’s heading.

“There’s a new energy here, and I think a common sense of direction and change,” Conger said.