Once or twice a week, the Mission Mountain Railroad’s black and yellow locomotive slowly threads through the heart of Kalispell. But that will change if Kalispell removes the railroad tracks through downtown now that the Flathead County Economic Development Authority has purchased a 40-acre plot of land east of the city for a new rail-served industrial park.
Although both city and county officials have said that no decision has been made about removing the tracks – and that it may still be years away – the establishment of a rail park between Whitefish Stage Road and U.S. Highway 2 could give them more incentive. It’s also an option that appears to have wide support from government officials, local businesses and the railroad itself.
Kellie Danielson, president of the FCEDA, said the 40-acre swath of land was purchased for $890,000 and is located along another industrial park owned by BNSF Railway. She said the land was a good buy because it is not in a flood plain and is already zoned for industrial purposes. Although the land is currently located in Flathead County, the previous owner signed a deal in which the property could be annexed by the city of Kalispell in the future.
Danielson said it would take up to two years for the site to be fully developed, including connecting it with water and sewage services. Once that happens, businesses could move in. Some officials hope businesses located in downtown Kalispell will consider a move, including CHS Kalispell, which loads rail cars of grain.
City Planning Director Tom Jentz said Kalispell has been looking at ways to breathe life into Kalispell’s core area, which includes roughly 360 acres of land along the railroad corridor between Woodland Park on the east side and Meridian Road on the west. Slicing through that land are the railroad tracks, first built into Kalispell in 1891, a year before the city was incorporated. Today, the tracks are owned by BNSF Railway but leased to Watco Companies, which operates the section of railroad between Columbia Falls and Kalispell as the Mission Mountain Railroad.
Jentz said although the railroad corridor was once a lively and vital part of Kalispell, many in the city think the area is underused and an eyesore.
“We want to get some energy back in that area because it’s getting pretty tired,” he said. “If we don’t do anything with the corridor it will get a little older and little rustier.”
The city has created a steering committee and is working with architects to create conceptual drawings of how the area could be redeveloped. Jentz said some of those concepts could include creating more green space in the city, walking trails, a new library or even a senior center. He also said there was no guarantee the tracks would be removed and nothing would happen without support from both area residents and industries.
“It’s a long and elaborate process and this isn’t going to happen overnight, but it must benefit both industry and the neighborhood,” Jentz said. “We’re not going to force anything. This has to be a partnership.”
One of the largest companies in the railroad corridor, CHS Kalispell, loads more than 300 rail cars of grain every year. The grain elevator on Center Street has been a hallmark of the west side of town since it was built in 1908, but CHS General Manager Mark Lalum said his company is willing to move. The concern is over who will help pay for that transition.
“CHS Kalispell has already told the city that we’re not going to get in the way, it’s just a matter of who’s going to pay for (the move),” Lalum said, adding that he thinks other businesses share a similar view. “We’d be glad to be a part of it, if that’s what the city wants.”
Removing the railroad would also affect the company that runs on it. Mission Mountain Railroad General Manager Kyle Jeschke said he supports removing the tracks and, in the long run, it would save the railroad money. He said one of the railroad’s largest expenses is maintaining all of the crossing signals in downtown Kalispell and if the tracks were removed, so too would the crossing gates.
“It would change our business in a lot of different ways because we would have our customers in one place and it would attract more business,” he said.
Danielson said FCEDA planned on moving forward with developing the new rail park site regardless of whether the downtown businesses were interested in moving there. She said the authority has met with other businesses that are interested in moving into the new industrial park, but no firm commitments have yet been made. She said it was important to start development soon because “most of the time, when a business is looking for a location, they needed it yesterday.”
Danielson said having an industrial park that is close to the highway and served by rail will be a great benefit to the local economy – one that is worth the efforts of all involved.
“Main line rail is an asset and that’s why the Flathead County Economic Development Authority had this vision for rail service sites,” she said. “Do I think this is going to be easy? No. Do I think it’ll be worth it? Yes.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.