Rekindling Downtown Kalispell’s Parking Debate

By Beacon Staff

Earlier this month Karlene Kohr asked the Kalispell City Council a simple question.

“Who wants to take business downtown when there’s no parking?” she said at the Oct. 17 meeting inside City Hall.

Kohr, who manages the La Lark building on Kalispell’s Main Street, believes the lack of adequate parking is driving customers away from downtown and hurting businesses. She said she speaks for a number of business owners who consider the parking situation to be a critical issue and one that has been largely ignored for more than 30 years. A former mayor who once strongly advocated for a parking structure downtown echoes her concerns.

In her public comment before the city council Kohr pleaded for the issue to finally be addressed.

“It’s been this problem that nobody has really wanted to resolve,” she said in a later interview.

“Why is it that we always have to take forever and then it ends up costing more to address these real problems? And downtown parking is a real problem.”

The streets in and around downtown have meter-less parking available, but cars can only stay in one spot for two hours before they are in danger of a $10 ticket. That’s a deterrent to shopping, Kohr said, as customers are less likely to stay and visit more than one store.

Then there’s the simple scarcity of parking spaces. Because of limited availability, downtown streets have become “through streets,” Kohr said, meaning cars are led right through town, away from business.

“If we could start talking about this problem instead of ignoring it, we could look at avenues and look at putting in angle parking,” she said. “Why do we want to move traffic away from the downtown area? We want to find a place for traffic to park.”

Doug Rauthe, who served as Kalispell mayor from 1990-98, regularly made efforts during his two terms trying to address the issue. Rauthe considered a parking structure on West Second Street near Valley Bank to be the best solution then, and still does now.

“Whether this economy will support (a parking structure), it’s probably a Catch-22 thing where until the economy gets better they won’t do it,” Rauthe, currently the executive director at Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana on Main Street, said. “But really the core of Kalispell is under threat because they haven’t done it.”

Rauthe believes one of the two parking structures that were proposed more than 10 years ago and nearly came to fruition would have improved downtown Kalispell. Instead, like Kohr, Rauthe believes the issue remains unresolved.

“Parking is just critical for the health of businesses,” he said. “Everybody needs to have parking.”

At Community Action Partnership alone, roughly 500 people per week walk through the doors along with nearly 70 employees. Every two hours, employees and clients are forced to stream out to their cars and move them to another two-hour location. This goes on throughout the day, Monday through Friday.

“Just trying to find a parking spot is really hard,” Community Action Partnership agency development director Danielle Bundrock said. “It’s just a waste of time and complicates things.”

There are 10 designated parking lots of varying sizes spread across downtown. The Skyline lot behind the VFW Lounge on First Avenue West was recently made a free lot as a way to attract downtown employees away from precious storefront parking spots.

At Glacier Bank on Main Street, two lots have been established for customers. But President Bob Nystuen says the day-to-day frustration is dealing with non-customers occupying the lots.

“We try to keep tabs on that and it’s kind of been a frustration for us,” he said. “Those are prime spots that customers would like to use.”

Nystuen has heard the parking structure conversation for years. He looks at it from a banker’s perspective when thinking about its feasibility.

“The big challenge is how does it pencil out? Where does the capital come from?” he said. “That’s always been a challenge.”

But that said, both Rauthe and Kohr believe if the city establishes a will to solve the overall parking situation, there’s a way.

“We have to keep brainstorming,” Rauthe said.

“In my lifetime I hope (the parking structure) comes to fruition. It certainly needs to, otherwise what will happen is exactly what we’ve seen; new businesses will move out to Hutton Ranch and points beyond and the core area will keep being threatened.”