Cataloging Kalispell’s Historic Buildings

By Beacon Staff

In 1925, a pitcher from the first World Series moved from the mound to Main Street in Kalispell.

After his Pittsburg Pirates lost to the Dodgers in the 1903 World Series, John Gus Thompson and his wife homesteaded in the Flathead Valley, and later opened The Pastime Bar, a pool hall and cigar store business at 140 Main Street. Today, the building, which most recently housed the Columbine Gallery, is empty – one of the several that city officials hope to reinvigorate, along with the rest of the downtown area, through a historical designation program.

“We have these wonderful assets downtown,” Katharine Thompson, community development manager for the City of Kalispell, said. “They might just need some buffing up here and there, and the spotlight shone on them.”

Kalispell is in the beginning stages of a survey meant to inventory historic buildings around the city’s downtown core. The effort will also update and likely expand the city’s historic districts, which could bring more property owners there federal and state tax credits for improvement work.

In the 1980s, Kalispell conducted a survey of its historic downtown buildings, chronicling each facility’s history and architectural designs, and established four historic districts around the downtown core. The survey was later updated in 1992.

While the information is “invaluable,” Thompson said “it’s time to take a fresh look at it.” The city has several large, blue binders filled with duplicates of already-copied pages of the survey. The pictures on each page are unrecognizable, since they’re so pixilated or dark. In all, there are only three known sets of the survey information left.

Last fall, Kalispell successfully applied for a $12,500 grant from the Montana State Historic Preservation Office to fund an update of the survey information that has already been collected. The city is providing matching money to tackle the project.

The new survey will have an electronic format, making it more accessible to the public and less likely to be lost or destroyed. It will also attempt to enroll buildings on the national historic registry that didn’t meet the 50-year age requirement last time around.

“We’re missing a lot of potential area,” Thompson said. “For example, only the east side of Main is part of the Main Street district, and we know very little about properties on First Avenue East.”

There are 76 buildings within the current districts, which consist of parts of central Main Street, the Flathead County Courthouse area and neighborhoods to the east and west of downtown. To qualify, a district must have a two-to-one ratio of historic buildings to non-historic structures within its boundaries.

The survey, which will be conducted by a Missoula consulting firm, is expected to take about a year to complete. Local citizens are asked to contact the city if they have historical documents, information or photos on downtown-area buildings.

By building on Kalispell’s historic identity, city officials hope to grow the downtown area’s economic engine, by drawing in the nationally growing number of “heritage tourists” – people interested in visiting an area to explore its local historical landmarks and history.

Owners of recognized historic buildings are also eligible for state and federal tax incentive programs, which offer them as much as a 20 percent tax credit on a certified rehabilitation of a recognized historic structure.

A tax credit differs from an income tax deduction. While the deduction lowers the amount of income subject to taxation, a tax credit lowers the amount of tax owed. So, in general, a 20 percent rehabilitation credit equals 20 percent off the amount spent in the project.

The projects can vary widely, from updating plumbing and heating systems to improving outside facades, however, they have to be approved before they take place and can’t damage, destroy or cover materials or features, interior or exterior, that define the building’s historic character.

Enhanced historic districts have been an economic boon for several Montana communities, Rolene Schliesman, an architectural historian with the Montana State Historic Preservation Office, said. Schliesman recently visited Kalispell to meet with property owners and answer their questions about the program.

Livingston and Virginia City are examples of towns where an emphasis on preserving and touting historic buildings has been a financial driver, Schliesman said, including attracting filmmakers.

Thompson’s goals are more modest than Hollywood films: “It’s maybe a different way for downtown to think of itself or market itself.” And if tax incentives could encourage business owners to renovate and open buildings like the old Pastime Bar, “it means a healthier downtown – and that’s good for all of us.”

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