Bracing for the ‘Big One,’ a Resilient Columbia Falls Endures

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – This is a town where the local barbershop doesn’t have a phone because it doesn’t need one, where you call the auto parts store and you’re told the owner is out because he’s currently “busier than a dog in a hubcap factory.” Here, the locals root unyieldingly for their high school sports teams and their teams return the favor by winning more often than not.

Columbia Falls is a blue-collar town that once boasted white-collar wages, at least by Montana standards. But over the decades, it has watched the heart of its economy – the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company – slowly dissolve. The proud institution once had nearly 1,500 employees. By the end of this month, it will have none. The aluminum giant is closing its doors and locally they are referring to it as the “big one.”

“The school is the heartbeat of any community, but (CFAC) wasn’t too far behind,” said Randy Bocksnick, owner of Randy’s Barbershop on Nucleus Avenue for the past 45 years. “It’s sad. I can’t even explain how sad it is. That place paid for a lot of college educations.”

Meanwhile, the other pillars of the Columbia Falls economy – Plum Creek and Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. – are having their own struggles, cutting back and eliminating hundreds of jobs in the past month. When measured in decades, the jobs lost – many in Columbia Falls – are dramatic for an area with a relatively small population. It’s important to note that a much smaller percentage of the timber and aluminum companies’ employees actually live in Columbia Falls today compared to in years past. This helps soften the blow.

But Columbia Falls has a reputation for resiliency, and it continually lives up to that reputation. Following the boom years of the 1960s and 70s, when aluminum prices were high and there were four sawmills in town, Columbia Falls hit a lull: The aluminum industry plummeted in the early 1980s and electricity costs soared. This deadly combination, which devastates CFAC, is again rearing its head today. At one point, CFAC used nearly 25 percent of all of Montana’s electricity to produce aluminum.

In 1985 a businessman named Brack Duker bought the plant and slashed wages with the promises that employees would eventually get their wallets’ worth through a profit-sharing program. But as the aluminum market picked up again, Duker’s promises began to ring hollow and the workers took a stand. A long legal battle ensued, culminating in a $97-million settlement in 1998.

With resentment still lingering over the Duker era, the turn of the 21st century only brought more bad news. A national power crisis forced the plant to temporarily close its doors in 2001. Then in 2003, the company shed 175 jobs. City Manager Bill Shaw took office in 2001 and said the volatile conditions led the city to adopt – or build upon – a conservative approach to governance, particularly with economic matters. This approach persists today.

Economists, local officials and passersby on the street all point out that a major difference between the economic landscape now and that of the early 1980s is the strong global thread tying Columbia Falls’ economy to the rest of the world’s. The general feeling is that their fate isn’t entirely in their hands. Locals don’t envision a CFAC comeback and there’s a palpable fear over what the future holds.

“Before, it was localized,” Bocksnick said. “We knew it was going to bounce back, and it did.”

Gregg Davis, an economist at Flathead Valley Community College, said Columbia Falls has been steadily diversifying its economy, diminishing its reliance on manufacturing. The numbers support his assertion to a degree, but the town’s job base doesn’t provide reason to believe the unemployment rate is any better than the county’s, which is one of the highest in the state at almost 9 percent. Many of the manufacturing jobs lost paid high wages.

“They’re blue-collar jobs, but they’re good blue-collar jobs,” Davis said.

Health care providers, law offices and other professional businesses have sprouted up in town over the years. Driven largely by the grassroots efforts of ambitious locals, downtown’s retail base is expanding and diversifying. Also, as the gateway to Glacier National Park, Columbia Falls’ tourism industry is consistently strong in the summer.

Davis also emphasizes that Columbia Falls’ economic landscape can’t be measured strictly within the parameters of its surrounding manufacturing base or its in-town businesses. Increasingly, he said, Flathead County is an interconnected economy and Columbia Falls must be viewed as a link in that chain – its future is more closely tied to Kalispell and Whitefish than it once was.

“We’re a regional economy,” Davis said. “You can’t just draw a geopolitical boundary. We’re clearly more regionalized now.”

But the town’s inextricable link to manufacturing is omnipresent. Shaw points out that many of the town’s shops rely heavily on business from the timber and aluminum employees, including those who don’t live in Columbia Falls but pass through daily for work. Their dollars are important.

“I don’t know if we’ve managed to diversify,” Shaw said. “There’s only a few businesses here in town and most of them deal with serving those employees.”

Tough economic times are digging into the city’s finances too. The number of delinquent water accounts are high, which “worries us,” Shaw said. Some residents are looking at their personal finances and concluding they can’t even pay for basic water and sewer services.

“How are we going to cope with this?” Shaw said. “The (city) council is looking at the very worst situation over the next six to eight months.”

At Randy’s Barbershop, which has existed pleasantly without a telephone for 45 years, Bocksnick hears it all. Barbershop conversations are peppered with speculation about the future and nostalgia over the glory days of the past, when Bocksnick said “Columbia Falls was the hub of the valley.” Some customers are recently laid off; others are fearful about their job and most know people looking for work.

But during hard times, Columbia Falls bands together. It always has and Bocksnick believes it always will.

“I still see it today,” Bocksnick said. “That hasn’t changed. No sir, that hasn’t changed a bit.”

Karl Skindingsrude, co-owner of K & J’s Auto Parts, said the community has held several “Save the Plant” campaigns in the past to show its support for CFAC. Crowds of people would gather at the high school gymnasium to brainstorm ways to give the aluminum giant a boost. He’s not sure if it will happen this time, as this closing appears to be the “big one.”

Unlike many stores in the Napa Auto Parts chain, Skindingsrude relies heavily on industrial equipment purchased by places like Plum Creek and CFAC. But his reliance isn’t as strong as it once was since he has been adapting over the years to the decline of those companies. The town as a whole has been adapting to woes in the manufacturing base – the CFAC closure is less a surprise than a seemingly inevitable final step in a process set in motion decades ago.

The relationship between Columbia Falls and its large companies goes both ways. Plum Creek, Stoltze and CFAC have always been deeply ingrained in the community and active in the town’s affairs. The companies’ influence extends far beyond money matters. And many of their employees have been around for decades.

“It’d be nice if things could perk up because a lot of people are affected,” Skindingsrude said.

Circumstances have changed and uncertainty pervades, but Bocksnick points to the past as proof of Columbia Falls’ ability to endure. His barbershop has served as a conversational forum for the community for 45 years, so he’s always found his finger to be firmly placed on Columbia Falls’ pulse.

“We are very, very resilient,” Bocksnick said. “I’ve always said that we get down and we bounce right back up.”

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