Kalispell Revitalization Plan Taking Shape

By Beacon Staff

Kalispell’s redevelopment plan for its core area isn’t just feasible, it’s vital to the heart of the city, according to a local market analysis conducted in the last year by a consulting firm.

Staff from the Willdan Group, a financial and economic services company based in California, conveyed optimism in a comprehensive report that sheds light on Kalispell’s vision for revitalizing its historic downtown area.

The report, which was commissioned by the city in October and presented to council last week, highlighted opportunities and necessities for urban renewal and provided a playbook for bringing the concepts to reality in the coming years.

“We’re very encouraged by a wide range of funding sources that would be eligible to fund various aspects of this (redevelopment plan),” Molly McKay, a principal consultant with Willdan, said.

The information – and encouragement – laid out in Willdan’s study contribute the latest piece of the puzzle for the Kalispell Core Area Revitalization Plan, which continues to gather steam since being adopted by council as part of the city’s growth policy in December.

After years of public debate, Kalispell is moving forward with a long-term strategy to eliminate blight, enhance the community’s amenities and foster private investment in the downtown core area.

The city’s plan includes replacing more than three miles of railroad tracks with an expansive trail system, building an outdoor amphitheater in Woodland Park and upgrading public infrastructure like sidewalks as incentives for private investment.

Over a 10-month span, Willdan consultants researched the residential and commercial markets, demographics and trends, as well as available and prospective funding mechanisms.

The key findings were that change was “vital to ensuring the Core Area can redevelop and once again thrive,” McKay said, and that the city’s proposed plans “are in fact financially feasible.”

Step One: Developing An Industrial Rail Park

Described as the linchpin to the overall project, the development of an industrial rail yard on 40 acres between Whitefish Stage Road and U.S. Highway 2 remains the complex yet necessary first step of the process. The new park, which could break ground in early 2014, would allow rail-served businesses to relocate and provide the impetus for removing the downtown tracks that cut off streets and detach residential and commercial neighborhoods.

The Flathead County Economic Development Authority and City of Kalispell applied for an $8.7 million federal grant, which would speed up the estimated $14.5 million project and make it a realistic possibility within 7-10 years, according to Willdan. If the federal grant does not come through, the project will still move forward but take a few years longer, Willdan and city staff said.

“(The federal grant) would make things simpler and faster, but the rest of the plan, the rail park development, is already underway,” said Katharine Thompson, the city’s community development manager.

Willdan’s report described the industrial park as a valuable asset for multiple users, including existing and new private businesses in the manufacturing, timber and agriculture industries.

City Planning and Building Director Tom Jentz said meetings have been held with the existing rail users and officials from Burlington Northern and Sante Fe and other stakeholders. They are all well aware of the city’s redevelopment goals, Jentz said.

Step Two: Replace the Railroad Tracks with a Linear Park

Once the new rail park is developed, the downtown tracks become obsolete. At that point, Kalispell could begin working with BNSF and others to acquire rights to the land where the tracks currently run.

One of the primary goals of the Core Area Plan is to remove the tracks and create an expansive “linear park,” which would extend 3.26 miles and incorporate a recreational trail network linking existing routes across town, like the one in Woodland Park. The linear park would also reposition the layout of area neighborhoods with improved infrastructure and amenities, which city planners hope would spur private investment and development, similar to the recent rejuvenation on East Center Street where the Loading Dock and Depot Place are located.

“The removal of the active rail line not only provides new commercial and residential redevelopment opportunities, but also the ability to reconnect Kalispell’s street grid to create a fully functioning, pedestrian-oriented Main Street community retail destination,” Willdan wrote in its report.

The proposed linear park received broad support from area property owners during the public scoping process, according to Willdan.

“We think this is a really important benefit to your community,” McKay said. “Up to this point, access to existing trails is quite difficult. In some cases, it’s really not safe.”

Willdan anticipated the linear park would be implemented in phases, based on the availability of funding and the process of removing the tracks. But the entire project could come to fruition in three years time, the firm stated. The estimated cost for the shared-used trail in those initial years would be $1.5 million, according to Willdan. The total cost to develop the linear park is estimated at $4.45 million over a 10-year timeframe.

Willdan said the capital costs for the linear park would be supported by a combination of grant funding, incremental real property tax revenues and tax increment finance funds. The firm identified more than 20 grant funding resource opportunities available to the city.

Willdan made clear in its report that TIF funds would be the most valuable tool for implementing the entire core area plan. McKay said cities across the nation constantly rely on special taxing districts, like TIFs, to fund similar redevelopment projects.

“I really do believe in this case, TIF is the most appropriate tool to investigate,” she said.

Step Three: Outdoor Amphitheater

As part of the linear park development planners have identified the potential for an outdoor gathering place for music, entertainment and other activities near downtown. CTA Architects Enginers, which crafted the Core Area Plan, tabbed Woodland Park as a viable location for an amphitheater.

Step Four: Trailhead/Comfort Station/Parking Lot

In place of Flathead Electric’s under-utilized power station on East Center Street and Woodland Avenue, planners envision a connection point for the linear park pathway, and a parking lot serving Woodland Park.

Step Five: Senior Outdoor Fitness Park

This proposed facility at Meridian Road and Appleway Trail could be a small-scale site with outdoor exercise equipment available to the public.

Step Six: Increased Retail Development

Assuming the railroad tracks are removed, Willdan predicted the area would see commercial and residential expansion. The firm analyzed the current real estate and market conditions and found there was unmet demand for retail and restaurant uses. Instead of competing with the bustling north-side business district, Kalispell’s downtown should furnish a unique identity as a destination for dining and shopping, Willdan recommended. The city of Kalispell could help this along by improving and widening pedestrian walkways, developing family-focused attractions and increasing access and parking opportunities.

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