COLUMBIA FALLS – As community groups in Columbia Falls work to revitalize the uptown district and draw new businesses, it appears the town is becoming an antique hub in the Flathead, with several existing stores and another opening soon on U.S. Highway 2.
“It’s easy to say let’s do something with Columbia Falls, or let’s improve the uptown district,” Sally Peterson, owner of Funtastic Finds antique store, said. “But it’s entirely different to make a big investment by opening a business. There were naysayers, but this store has seen success and others have followed.”
Peterson opened her antique shop in June 2006 in a 1908-vintage building on Nucleus Avenue. At the time she was one of just a few retail stores left in the uptown district, which had seen a mass exodus of businesses to the commercial strip on U.S. Highway 2 as the community’s resource-based economy had changed. “It was a leap of faith,” she said. “A quantum leap of faith.”
The business has endured though, thriving during the summer months as tourists travel through the valley. It’s bolstered during slower winter months by faithful local shoppers. And other entrepreneurs, their confidence buoyed by Peterson’s success and the encouragement of the community, have followed.
Around the same time Peterson’s store was opening, Elizabeth and Chris Holding launched Montana Iron Works Arts and Antique Gallery on Highway 2 near its junction with Nucleus. And in February 2007, Jeff and Lynn Chase opened their antiques and collectibles store, Back in Time, on Nucleus Avenue just across the street from Peterson’s store.
This June, yet another new antique store called Station 8 is arriving, going into the former Linc’s Automotive building, a long-time fixture of the community, on Highway 2.
With four antique shops in less than three years, it’s unprecedented growth for such a niche industry in Columbia Falls, where business growth has otherwise lagged far behind the residential boom.
The Columbia Falls antique storeowners attribute their success to a supportive community atmosphere, where other businesses and residents have gone out of their way to offer encouragement and to shop in their stores. It’s part of changing attitudes in Columbia Falls, they say, as the community looks for an alternative to its enduring image as an industrial town.
“My sign went up with my number on it and I had four people from around town call and welcome me and say let’s have coffee in just the first two days,” Colette Gross, owner of Station 8, said. “It really reinforced that I had made the right decision to put this business in Columbia Falls.”
Each of the other storeowners shares similar stories of a town that’s welcomed them with open arms, happy to have a local shopping alternative to driving to Kalispell or Whitefish. They’re intent on proving the few naysayers wrong – the people who said there was no hope in opening a store amid boarded up shops.
“Sometimes people seem a bit surprised, ‘Oh, you’re still here,’” Lynn Chase said. “We’re not surprised though. There’s everything here you need to succeed – a supportive community, other supportive business owners, tourism in the summer, and a steady flow of traffic on Nucleus.”
Despite being in competition, the antique storeowners may be each other’s biggest supporters, directing antique shoppers to one another’s stores. More stores means more shoppers, they say, and each shop has its own niche.
The Chases spent 13 years collecting for their “Retro Room,” which holds everything from albums and eight-track players to lava lamps, vintage furniture and Elvis memorabilia. Funtastic Finds boasts a large collection of jewelry, furniture and clothing from all eras and has a large outdoor area dedicated to antique lawn ornaments. Montana Iron Horse bolsters its antiques business by selling mostly western art and bronzes.
Gross is in the process of completely renovating the 100-year-old building that most recently housed an automotive shop, restoring it to its original condition when it was the town’s railroad station with maple floors and beaded board walls. Station 8, she said, will rent space to about 16 different vendors and include Montana-made products, home décor, antiques and more.
“I don’t think savvy business owners view each other as competition, because they know the more antique stores or retail stores that open here the more customers will come,” Gross said. “Having four antique shops within about a block of each other is a real draw.”