A ‘Magnet’ for Development

By Beacon Staff

An extensive report published this summer spelled out the tangible economic benefits that exist within Northwest Montana’s sizeable share of the Crown of the Continent. It found that pristine amenities like Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake present value in the global marketplace and attract business development.

“The Crown’s unique appeal has emerged as one of our most important economic assets,” lead researcher Andrew Hagemeier writes in the introduction of “Pathways to Prosperity: The Natural Roots of Economic Success in the Crown of the Continent,” which was produced by the National Parks Conservation Association.

Hagemeier adds, “The Crown of the Continent has an ‘X-factor’ that cannot be bought, built, nor duplicated anywhere else in the world.”

The city of Columbia Falls, dubbed the “The Gateway to Glacier,” is positioned to benefit from its attractive surroundings. But it also has more than an “X-factor” in its favor. The local economy appears to be stabilizing and the housing market seems to be improving. Interest from outside businesses is noticeably picking up, and new businesses are popping up.

The mood among the city’s business community continues to rise, according to Carol Pike, executive director of the Columbia Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re proud that we have good jobs here,” Pike said.

Building on this hometown pride, a new promotional video is being designed with the goal of spurring economic development by promoting the community’s strengths.

BadFritter Films, a production company based in Whitefish, is finishing work on a nine-minute video that showcases the recreational, business and residential opportunities in the Columbia Falls area. An initial version of the film has been circulating recently and the reviews have been positive.

“It just turned out phenomenal,” City Manager Susan Nicosia said.

“I showed it at home and my 15-year-old daughter watched it and she said, ‘People will want to come here.’ And I said, ‘That’s the point.’”

The city commissioned the promotional film in August.

“The whole idea is to let people know who we are and why we live here. We’re a strong, safe, small community,” Nicosia said.

“We have room for growth without destroying who we are and what we have.”

A few positive signs have already emerged for a community that has, in recent years, suffered high unemployment and the closure of its largest employer at one time, Columbia Falls Aluminum Company.

The city issued more building permits in October than all of June and July combined. A majority of the permits were for single-family homes.

“That shows there’s some strength,” Nicosia said.

“I think we’re definitely stable,” she added. “The more job opportunities we can create, and even more importantly, the more jobs we can maintain here, is critical. Hopefully we can continue looking at opportunities and provide jobs.”

Matt Hicks maneuvers a four-barrel fermentation tank delivered to the Desert Mountain Brewing Co. under construction in Columbia Falls. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

There has been an influx of business interest from outside firms, particularly along the U.S. Highway 2 corridor, according to Montana West Economic Development (MWED), which works closely with the city of Columbia Falls organizing grants and loans for businesses and facilitating economic development.

Successful businesses such as Zinc Air, Nomad Global Communication Solutions, Creative Sales and PROOF Research have significantly raised the profile of the stretch of highway leading from Kalispell to Columbia Falls.

Zinc Air, which produces battery solutions for storing and generating power, recently held an open-house tour of its facility at 5314-A Highway 2. Another tour is scheduled for Dec. 11 at 5:30 p.m. Call 755-9462 to RSVP for the tour.

Kellie Danielson, president of MWED and the Flathead County Economic Development Authority, said there has been an increase in interest from prospective businesses considering relocating or establishing in the Flathead Valley. Columbia Falls stands out thanks to a few distinct advantages, Danielson said.

“There seems to be a lot of interest driven by available buildings (near Columbia Falls),” she said. “Also the real estate is affordable and the local government is friendly and very welcoming. There is this magnet that kind of draws people to Columbia Falls.”

The presence of Glacier National Park and Whitefish Mountain Resort clearly helps attract tourism-related businesses, but the real estate availability is significantly helping draw outside interest from technical and manufacturing companies, Danielson said.

In just the past month, two sizeable companies inquired about the area, and had a favorable outlook of the Flathead, Danielson said. One was a manufacturing company seeking a rural setting where it could move into an existing site. Another inquiry came from a firm interested in settling into an existing space and would create 50 to 100 jobs.

“We were really excited to see this outside activity,” Danielson said.

The two companies reinforced what Danielson has long emphasized – 85 percent of the businesses that are looking to relocate or establish a new facility are seeking existing buildings.

And currently, Danielson pointed out, “When you look at it, if you’re looking for an available building, your search is driven to Evergreen and the Highway 2 corridor in Columbia Falls.”

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