Remodel Begins on Columbia Falls Discovery Square

By Beacon Staff

Fueled by community volunteers, work continues to press forward on efforts to develop a new library and community center in Columbia Falls’ uptown district.

On May 16, the volunteer organization First Best Place Task Force kicked off a remodeling project at Glacier Discovery Square, the former First Citizens Bank and Glacier Bank building on Nucleus Avenue.

It was the first of two Saturdays’ worth of work to remove the old bank teller line and some of the interior walls in the building.

Dave Renfrow, president of the task force, said building contractors stepped forward and offered to donate their time and expertise to improve the space at Discovery Square.

“This is a great example of how things can get done – even in a down economy – when a community comes together,” he said.

The Green Builders Guild led the crew, with technical assistance from GSS Electric, Grover & Company Architecture, and APEC Engineering, in an initiative the task force has dubbed “contracted volunteerism.”

Essentially, the idea is to actually contract with volunteers in much the same way that a typical subcontractor would on a build project, the task force’s executive director Barry Conger said. That way they’re part of an overall professionally managed construction project, rather than just “show-up-and-hammer folks.”

“We think it will give building professionals a controlled structure to donate their skills in a very specific and organized way, so they can better schedule volunteer work alongside their paid gigs,” Conger said.

The task force, a grassroots community group that formed in mid-2006 to focus on local revitalization projects, has made big strides in its efforts to develop the new community center in the city’s uptown district.

After raising more than $500,000 – about a third of its overall goal – in its first sixth months, the volunteer group bought the former bank building and Nucleus Avneue property in June 2008.

The ultimate goal is to relocate the city’s library from its current home in City Hall to the building’s main floor. At almost 9,000 square foot, the Discovery Center would approximately double the library’s current space, drastically increasing the library’s services and programs.

But while the task force continues its fundraising efforts for the library, it isn’t letting the facility languish unused.

In recent months, activities there have included a film series, chamber of commerce luncheons, wilderness first aid classes, and other community events.

Additionally, the Flathead Chapter of the Montana Native Plant Society, which had been meeting in Kalispell for the past 20 years, moved to the Discovery Square last November. The society has started designing several planting beds on the property to showcase a variety of native plants.

And last fall, North Valley Music School, a nonprofit music school based in Whitefish, opened a satellite location offering private lessons at the center.

Last week’s renovation work will facilitate larger community gatherings, and allow the group to keep bringing events to Columbia Falls.

“This is just a small piece of a big remodel effort,” Erick Robbins, a steering committee members of the First Best Place, said. “While we continue to raise the funding for the bigger work to relocate the library to Discovery Square, we are seeking to use the building as much as we can, and this will help make even more possible there.”

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