Development Heats Up for Summer

By Beacon Staff

For the better part of last decade, the summer months were marked with the large presence of tourists and bulldozers, tokens of two vital industries in the Flathead Valley. Tourism and construction provided jobs, an infusion of outside money and fuel for other growth. And then in 2008, construction dwindled to historic lows in the economic hub of Flathead County and the largest marketplace in Northwest Montana.

But the city of Kalispell and surrounding communities appear to be rebounding from the Great Recession and poised for a busy summer reminiscent of the past.

With some of the lowest gas prices in the country, Montana is in line for another record tourism year. Analysts predict a 2 percent increase over last year’s historic-high 10.8 million nonresident visitors and a 4 percent hike in tourist spending, up from $3.27 billion.

Glacier National Park, the largest local magnet alongside Flathead Lake, is making progress with snow plowing and could have the Going-to-the-Sun Road fully open for the longest period since rehabilitation began, from late June into October.

“We’re showing really good advanced bookings for our hotel properties,” said Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.

A healthy amount of construction will greet tourists this summer. Building permits, a telltale sign of economic activity, are piling up inside City Hall as the construction season kicks off with its most promising outlook in five years.

“The spotlight is slowly coming back on Kalispell,” said Kalispell Planning Director Tom Jentz.

Only five months into 2013, new residential development in the city has almost already surpassed all of 2012, with 51 building permits for single-family residences or townhouses issued and another six under review. There were a total of 56 last year.

Commercial growth reflects a similar trend. Several large developments are breaking ground or at the tail end of construction, including Homewood Suites by Hilton, Cabela’s and Glacier Eye Clinic, while prospects are solidifying for Fred’s Appliance, DePratu Volkswagon and Sonju Industrial. Add to that the likelihood that construction on the Highway 93 Alternate Route is recommencing, providing one of the final pieces of the city’s grand rearrangement project.

Just the section of land between Reserve Loop and West Reserve Drive, the future home of Cabela’s, Glacier Eye Clinic and the new section of bypass, is expected to lead to roughly $20 million in development, which is almost the total amount spent on construction for all of Kalispell in both 2010 and 2011, according to city records.

“That’s phenomenal for our economy,” Jentz said.

Last year saw a sharp increase in commercial construction, totaling $51.68 million compared to $21.59 million a year prior. Entering the busiest time for new construction, Kalispell appears to be on pace to match or exceed last year’s growth.

Crews work on the construction site near Glacier High School. A flat plot of land where construction of Cabela’s will take place is seen in the background near the intersection of West Reserve Drive and U.S. Highway 93. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

The nine commercial lots surrounding Cabela’s new retail store could see more businesses move in. The site developer, Swank Enterprises, is developing the entire parking lot and landscaping with future businesses in mind, Jentz said.

“There’s a lot of interest in that north section,” Jentz said.

Construction activity is extending north and south of Kalispell, too. The city of Whitefish is reporting significant commercial and residential activity with the prospect of two large apartment complexes. A feasibility study is also underway for a possible upscale hotel and convention center, tentatively called Two Elk Lodge.

BJ Grieve, the planning director for Flathead County, said interest has been increasing for new development, especially in areas near Bigfork and Lakeside. Plat construction in the county bottomed out last year to the lowest levels since data was first kept in 1973, Grieve said.

“We can’t go any lower, so I think it’s going to go up from here,” he said.

Administrators with Montana West Economic Development echo the optimistic tone that emerged in this year’s economic forecast.

“We’re running trying to keep up with companies that are interested,” said Kim Morisaki, manager of business development and special projects with MWED. “We’re seeing a lot more positive interest, so much so that we’re having a little bit of a hard time keeping up.”

Further south in Polson, a new Walmart Supercenter is nearing completion. The store is 155,000 square feet, more than twice the size of the city’s old Walmart, and could open by fall.

“I think it’s definitely a positive environment right now,” Unterreiner said. “There’s definitely a pickup in construction activity. People are looking for signs of sustained activity and things look good.”

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