Building Flathead County’s Future

By Beacon Staff

In light of the last five years, any inkling of economic growth is noteworthy.

This is more than a blip on the Flathead Valley’s radar.

Call it a comeback.

Residential homes sales and new home development continue to rise. Commercial activity is noticeably picking up steam, bolstering the valley’s appeal as a regional trade center. Longstanding industries such as timber are regaining their foothold while tourism is defining itself as a stalwart in the economy. Classrooms are swelling with young ones while retirees are increasingly migrating here at the behest of national magazines. The unemployment rate, although altered by a reduced labor force, has hit a five-year low.

Of course, this all comes with a disclaimer: it’s not the level of bustling growth and prosperity that defined the Flathead Valley at the turn of the new century.

Yet it’s still significant, still something of a sea change. Though uncertainty continues to loom as turmoil spills over on Capitol Hill, hampering the nation’s attempt at fleeing the Great Recession, optimism brightens the horizon.

“I try to rein in some of the expectations,” said Patrick Barkey, a longtime economist and director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, which releases economic breakdowns and forecasts of Montana counties.

“I think there are some concerns, but the facts speak pretty clearly. Flathead is coming back.”

A recent business survey conducted by the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce echoes the positive outlook. Ninety percent of business leaders surveyed in the Flathead, or 127 entities, predicted the economic climate would continue to improve into 2014, according to the survey results. Sixty-three percent, or 90 businesses, planned to maintain its staffing levels next year while nearly 34 percent, or 48 businesses, planned to add employees.

“I think we’re seeing signs of improvement and it feels like it out there,” Chamber of Commerce President Joe Unterreiner said.

“There’s a little bit of firming up despite what has happened in Washington. At least the results of our survey indicate that there’s growing confidence in the economy here.”

Although the county has roughly 5,000 fewer jobs than before the recession, Unterreiner said the commercial district continues to blossom with high paying jobs and reputable firms.

The examples are vast.

There’s the corridor along U.S. Highway 2 featuring successful and innovative companies such as Nomad Global Communications Solutions, PROOF Research and Zinc Air. Nomad recently entered into a major buying agreement that allows quick delivery to the U.S. military and federal civilian agencies. Zinc is rebranding itself under a new name, ViZn Energy Systems, and continues work on a state-of-the-art grid storage battery. PROOF recently agreed to acquire Ohio-based Performance Polymer Solutions, a producer of award-winning engineering materials.

Along that same stretch of road, Glacier Park International Airport has seen a 4.5 percent increase in passengers this year. The summer months were especially busy: September and August both saw roughly 7 percent increases in passengers while July was up 2.3 percent. In contrast, a majority of major airports in Montana are experiencing passenger drops in 2013 over 2012.

In the ballooning north section of Kalispell, Cabela’s recently opened an outpost and a swath of other new businesses are getting in line, including a MacKenzie River restaurant. Kidsports Complex keeps cultivating regional sporting events, including next summer’s youth baseball tournament that will be its biggest ever. Across the street, Flathead Valley Community College is looking to grow its four-year opportunities for students with a new university center.

The prolonged U.S. 93 Alternate Route is nearing completion after decades in the works, a milestone that city officials hope will create a domino effect for further growth and redevelopment in the historic downtown.

Others are trying to follow suit and spur growth. The Evergreen Chamber of Commerce is trying to regain its former activity by pursuing a publicly initiated zone change to create an enterprise overlay that would allow a broader selection of light industrial uses in Evergreen.

To handle the growing wave of development, the city of Kalispell is readdressing its growth policy, which is 10 years old and due for review. Last week the planning board reviewed the first pages of the vast guiding document, which sets a community vision for growth.

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There is a rising tide of residential activity all across the valley. Whitefish permits are up while down the road in the valley’s economic hub, Kalispell has seen 230 building permits issued for new residential and commercial development or additions so far this year. With still two months remaining, the 2013 total already surpassed last year’s tally of 178 and could approach the 2008 total of 272. Among this year’s permits, more than 113 are for single-family residences, townhouses or apartments.

This year’s overall permits in equal a total investment value of $37.43 million. Last year’s total was $54.75 million, which was more than double the amount from 2008 ($27.22 million) and well above 2009 ($29.11 million). Investment in 2008 was $44.21 million.

The unemployment rate in Flathead County hit a five-year low in August. The non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped to 6 percent, the lowest mark since the eve of the recession in December 2008.

The nonfarm earnings in the county rose 2.7 percent last year, above the forecasted 1.9 percent, according to the BBER. This year’s earnings were projected to rise another 2.9 percent, but it’s unclear if that projection will end up higher, too.

The valley’s largest school district in Kalispell has experienced record enrollment in the younger grades in each of the last three years, reflecting a possible increase in families living in the valley.

At the same time, Flathead County’s future population will be grayer, as the local segment of aging boomers and retirees grows more rapidly than younger workers and newborns, according to a new population study. A new report commissioned by the Census and Economic Information Center of the Montana Department of Commerce predicts that Flathead County will gain almost 6,100 seniors between 2010 and 2018, hiking the number of residents aged 65 and older from 13,103 to 19,184.

The county’s population — 90,871 in 2010 — is expected to reach 96,422 in 2015 and surpass 100,000 in 2020, according to the report.

Life in the Flathead was once defined by rapid growth. Now that the Great Recession has ended, economic activity is picking back up and Flathead County is mounting the Great Comeback.