Kalispell Railroad Park in the Works

By Beacon Staff

In a city like Kalispell, which lacks interstate access, railroad service is an important economic asset, according to the Flathead County Economic Development Authority.

To help maintain a strong rail presence locally, the FCEDA is negotiating the purchase of 40 acres of county land on Whitefish Stage Road that could be turned into a rail-served industrial park.

Removing a stretch of tracks through the middle of Kalispell has been discussed recently as both city and planning staff continue exploring redevelopment options in the West Side Urban Renewal District. Removal of the tracks would directly affect two businesses that currently use them, Cenex Harvest States and Northwest Drywall.

The proposed rail site could end up being a “shovel-ready” solution, either for the existing businesses or new ones. The property would connect to an adjacent spur track running from the mainline in Columbia Falls that is part of a bigger network from Seattle, Wash., to Minneapolis, Minn., and Chicago, Ill.

“We’re in an isolated area. It’s tough to get goods here. Costs can be high,” Kellie Danielson, CEO and president of FCEDA and Montana West Economic Development, said. “To have a mainline rail going right through here, it’s an asset and you want to take advantage of that.”

FCEDA is negotiating a price with Knife River Corporation, which owns the gravel pit property. Danielson said she expects a deal to be reached by February.

The purchase of the property would be funded in part with a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. If and when the property is sold, Knife River would still occupy the land until Sept. 2012, Danielson said. FCEDA would like to have the site “shovel-ready” by 2013 and preferably lease the property to tenants that use a rail line for business.

“Companies are always looking for shovel-ready sites,” Danielson said.

The property on Whitefish Stage Road is “perfect,” she said. The cost of connecting rail lines to nearby tracks would be relatively low and the area is already industrial.

“We’d be taking property and giving it a more useful purpose and making it more relevant,” Danielson said.

FCEDA, which is supported financially by Flathead County through mill levy funds and shares the same staff with Montana West Economic Development, was founded in 1997 as “Flathead County’s strategy to prepare for economic development opportunities that might arise and require investment,” according to the organization’s website.

The organization began exploring ways to maintain rail service years ago, Danielson said, because “times have changed but we need to create an opportunity for rail.”

“Rail service has been here for 120 years. The city has grown up around it,” she said. “This (proposed rail park) makes sense.”

Danielson said FCEDA has not had any formal discussions with the city about annexing the property, which is right on the county line, to gain municipal services.

The gravel pit is currently being cleaned up in accordance with Montana Department of Environmental Quality standards, with “very minor issues” being dealt with, Danielson said. One contaminated area has been identified as “not minor” and will be isolated and contained, she said.