Board Can’t Agree on Kalispell Library’s Future

By Beacon Staff

The Columbia Falls library appears to have a new home, but the Kalispell library is still a question mark, perhaps even a bigger one than before.

A half year after the Flathead County Library Board of Trustees shot down a proposal to move into the abandoned Tidyman’s building in downtown Kalispell with a 3-2 vote, board members are struggling to find an alternative location, though Tidyman’s has never been completely ruled out. The library long ago outgrew its current facility on First Avenue East and is looking for a building near downtown of at least 50,000 square feet – the current library is 29,000.

While the Kalispell project has stalled, library officials are encouraged by the progress in Columbia Falls.

Last week a community group called the First Best Place Task Force closed a deal to purchase the old First Citizens Bank, owned by Glacier Bank, in downtown Columbia Falls. It was the culmination of collaborative efforts between First Best Place, the library board and the Columbia Falls Library Association. The bank has roughly the same square footage as the current library, which is located in City Hall, but it is on Nucleus Avenue – the heart of downtown – and it has more space for community events.

At a library board meeting held in Whitefish the same week the bank deal was completed, board members tempered their enthusiasm for the Columbia Falls project with frustration over the slow progress of the main Kalispell library. The primary topic of conversation was centralization: How closely should all of the branches within the library system be connected and how independently can they function?

More specifically, the question was: How much attention should be paid to the Kalispell library?

The Flathead County Library System consists of five branches, including the Kalispell library and satellites in Whitefish, Bigfork, Columbia Falls and Marion, though the Marion branch is substantially smaller than the rest. In Bigfork, three bond proposals have been denied in the past year to move and expand the library there.

At the meeting, board Chairman Jerry Hanson raised the possibility of future branches in Evergreen or the Somers-Lakeside area, though there are no plans for such projects. One member from the public in attendance suggested the board focus on the Kalispell library before thinking about creating more branches. Other members of the small crowd also asked, often emphatically, that the board make the main library its first priority.

“Rest assured, Kalispell is not going to languish,” Hanson said.

He said the board is paying attention to the Kalispell library, but can’t forget about the rest of the county. He said the library building committee faces the same delicate balance.

“I don’t know how the committee can function effectively if they focus all their attention on the Kalispell library,” he said.

Board member Anne Moran stressed uniqueness for each branch to match the character of their communities. But county library director Kim Crowley, while agreeing elements of individuality are beneficial, reminded that all of the branches share the same philosophy, goals and services – and it all starts with the main Kalispell library. Stewart Harvey, director of the library’s foundation, agreed.

“Part of having a centralized system is branding a centralized service,” Harvey said.

Back in December, when the board began zeroing in on the Tidyman’s location, it appeared it had found its new home – the site fit the criteria of being both downtown and more than 50,000 square feet. But the board voted down the proposal, citing concerns over the price tag and contaminants in the soil, reportedly resulting from petroleum storage leaks from when Burling Northern Santa Fe Railway owned the site.

While the Whitefish branch has a sizeable parking lot, and Columbia Falls also will with its new facility, Kalispell has only a handful of parking spots on the street available to the public, one of several concerns the board is considering. Hanson said that the communities and the city governments of Whitefish and Columbia Falls stepped up financially to make those projects work. Kalispell, however, has been a different story, he said.

“The city of Kalispell has not stepped up in any meaningful way,” Hanson said.

Crowley suggested the library has not tried hard enough and should sit down to talk seriously with the city again.

Crowley told the board that on June 2 a record of 1,008 people passed through the Kalispell library’s doors. As the library continues to grow in popularity and its future remains murky, board members and library officials alike are expressing disappointment.

“We keep coming back to the same place, which is we haven’t done some of the framework we need to,” board member Kala Lougheed said. “It’s frustrating for the public. It’s frustrating for us.”