Glacier Discovery Square Garners Early Support

By Beacon Staff

While other fundraising efforts throughout the valley have struggled, a Columbia Falls volunteer organization has made quick strides in its efforts to develop a new library and community center in the city’s uptown district.

In its first six months of fundraising for the Glacier Discovery Square, the First Best Place Task Force, a grassroots community group that formed in mid-2006 to focus on local revitalization projects, had already collected more than $500,000 – about a third of its overall goal. In June, the task force used a large portion of that money to purchase the former First Citizens Bank building and property located on Nucleus Avenue at the heart of the city’s uptown district.

Glacier Bank, which had purchased the property, sold the site to the group for about $465,000 – well under its market value – while Whitefish Credit Union supported the efforts with generous loan terms, Barry Conger, the task force’s executive director, said. Numerous other businesses, from engineering firms to Web site developers, have donated money or offered their services at reduced or no cost.

Now the task force is asking the rest of the community to chip in as it kicks off its public fundraising campaign. Architects are still finalizing the remodel budget, but Conger estimated the final cost of the center, including the purchase price, at somewhere between $1.5 and $2 million.

“I don’t think there’s been a fundraising campaign near this magnitude for decades in this community,” Conger said. “We’ve been incredibly fortunate so far in receiving support from businesses, corporations and different individuals involved. We’re hoping the rest of the community will step forward now and help us to the next stage.”

The task force intends to develop a community center and park on the site, and, as a key part of project, the Columbia Falls Library would move out of its current home in City Hall and occupy the building’s main floor. The library would also use the lower level of the building for expanded library programs.

The total space is almost 9,000 square feet, or approximately twice that of the library’s current City Hall location. The added room would allow the library to meet the needs of the community through at least 2025, according to assessments conducted in 2003 and 2006, Stewart Harvey, director of the library foundation, said.

“It’s certainly an upgrade for the library system and the folks that live in C-Falls,” Harvey said. “With more space and an uptown location, the library will truly be able to function as the community’s living room. It’s a win-win for everybody, I think.”

In the past, library programming has been stymied by lack of space in the current location. The new building, Harvey said, would allow for the expansion of existing children programs as well as lecture and film series and other educational outreach events.

In addition to the library, the task force has several other plans for the building, including a small coffee shop or café and an interpretive center to highlight Columbia Falls’ connection to Glacier National Park and the outdoors. The Legacy Archive Project will use the original vaults in the building to develop a local archive of historic artifacts, Conger said, and include a digitalized archive of historic documents and photos with the aim of increasing public access to those pieces of the area’s history.

Outside, the task force has plans for amphitheater-like area on the adjacent open lot that could be used for lectures and presentations, as well as a gathering space for families. The Montana Native Plant Society will develop the landscaping on the site as a series of demonstration gardens.

With the overarching goal of revitalizing the economic and cultural scene in uptown Columbia Falls, it’s an ambitious project. But, Conger said, the early support is indicative of what task force members and other locals have believed all along: Columbia Falls is ready for a project of this size.

“Columbia Falls residents have always been supportive of the community,” he said. “I think people will be eager to take this opportunity to step forward and say yes this is what our town is about.”

The task force anticipates the fundraising campaign and the remainder of the design work will be ongoing through the end of this year, with the remodel work expected to begin in early 2009. Tentative early projections are to have the new library open around fall 2009.

Those interested in donating to the effort are asked to go to the task force’s website at www.firstbestplace.org, or to mail contributions to 2130 Ninth Street W, #131, Columbia Falls, MT 59912.