Kalispell’s New Mayor Eager to Lead City’s Growth, Redevelopment

By Beacon Staff

Mark Johnson will be sworn in as the 30th mayor of Kalispell on Monday night inside City Hall. The political newcomer, who cruised to victory unopposed in the municipal election, is replacing Tammi Fisher as the city’s principal civic chief. He’s among two others who are newly elected members on the nine-person city council. Sandy Mundahl Carlson is replacing Bob Hafferman as a representative from Ward 1. Chad Graham is taking over Jeff Zauner’s seat in Ward 2.

Johnson, a 1987 graduate of Whitefish High School, has made Kalispell his home over the last decade, working as a financial advisor while being involved with several community boards, including the Chamber of Commerce.

He recently sat down with the Beacon to discuss his new turn as mayor and the goals and priorities he’s setting forth, as well as several issues topping the city’s agenda.

Here is an abridged transcript of Johnson’s interview:

BEACON: How would you describe your mindset going in?

MARK JOHNSON: Excited. I’m ready for it.

BEACON: What are some topics and priorities at the top of your mind?

JOHNSON: The impact fee committee has recommended increasing impact fees, so that will be in front of the council fairly quickly. Going back through the impact fee history, the studies are always subject to a lot of interpretation and a lot of misunderstanding. Working through that process will be important because the last thing we want to have happen is our impact fees stymie or prevent growth and development in Kalispell. Development does have to pay for itself. But typically, when you look at most subdivisions, the developer does pay their fair share. When I look at impact fees, I look at how they’re used and are they really being used to pay for the impact that that development had? Or are we using them as a pot of money to do other growth or other development and expansion within the city? I have some real concerns about that. So I want to make sure that impact fees that are collected are used for the true impact. That’s what they’re for. That said, I’m not a fan of impact fees. But we have them, and I don’t think I’ll change that.

The other thing, I’m excited about the core area redevelopment. The real estate development side of me, and the experience I have in that area, is kind of savoring what’s going to happen with this. And the rail park that (Montana West Economic Development) and (Flathead County Economic Development Authority) are working on, that’s a key component to helping us pull off the plan of the core area. Now that we have the core area vision, it’s how do we implement that? How do we put the guidelines in place to see the growth that we want to see here, to make a reinvigorated downtown? There’s a couple things that have to happen: movement of some of the industry out to the rail park and working with CHS to make sure they get something that’s fair and equitable to them to move so they can be competitive and maintain their position as a good employer in the city. Getting the rail line moved out is another one of those key components to this, obviously.

The other important part, I think too, is completion of the bypass. I’m glad to see that the state has put that on the fast track. In four years, if I can be the mayor that cuts the ribbon on the bypass, that would be pretty nice. That can help alleviate some of the traffic problems that we see. We look at communities that have a main highway – we have two main highways through our core – it gets tough with traffic to try to make it conducive to a walkable downtown. With the completion of the bypass, we can definitely make some improvements with the walkability of downtown, reinvigorate the core and see some multi-use residential and commercial development.

BEACON: So you’re fully in favor of the vision laid out in the city’s Core Area Redevelopment Plan?

JOHNSON: Yes. Definitely.

BEACON: While the bypass construction moves toward completion, what role should the city of Kalispell play in the meantime? How should the city prepare for that day when the alternate highway is complete?

JOHNSON: We need to look at what the impacts will be. How do we drive through traffic around to that bypass, yet not lose that casual tourist? We will need to do some things that attract the person who wants to come spend some time and spend some money in Kalispell, but at the same time let the commuters loop around.

There are some definite things with the gateway and the entry to Kalispell and how do we make Kalispell inviting? We don’t want to become a victim of a bypass that routes all the traffic and then we wither. So it’s a careful balance. How we drive traffic to Kalispell will be key. And looking at the first-time visitor and then looking at repeat visitors. If we can make Kalispell a place that people want to come back to, it just helps growth. Repeat growth is where we’ll see a huge benefit.

With that vision, we as a council have to come up with the mechanism to make that happen. And that mechanism is not the money mechanism; it’s essentially the approval, the zoning, and what’s going to be allowed in each area. It’s a careful balance though, because you can’t strip the rights of the property owner. It’s working with them so they understand that together we can help them realize the full potential of their assets.

BEACON: Growth appears to be returning to the valley and economists are predicting a continued rebound. How can Kalispell help furnish healthy growth across the city?

JOHNSON: It’s going to really boil down to this: you can have the economy improve but you still need the predictability and the fairness of our regulations, our fees. That’s where I’m concerned about the impact fees. Now that we’re starting to see growth, we can’t squash it before it’s fully lit. It’s an ember now. But we can’t dump water on it. In my mind, we really need to look at what is the best long-term plan for impact fees.

BEACON: There’s a new focus on increasing the number of affordable flights at Glacier Park International Airport. How important is that to all communities in the valley?

JOHNSON: It’s key. It’s all driving people to the valley. The more people who get into the valley, the more repeat visitors that we’re going to get, because once you come here you’ll want to be here.

Improving transportation in and out of this valley is critical. You look at the access we have right now and it’s so limited that it really can impact whether or not you have someone relocate to the valley.

We need to expand our business away from resources, they are important but they are dying out. The dependence on natural resources has diminished tremendously over the last 30 years and we’ve transitioned to an economy based on tourism and we have lived and died by the tourist dollar. We’re heavily dependent on Canadians. The Canadians for the last three years have saved our butt. But we need to expand our access to transportation as key to expanding our professional industry in Kalispell and the valley. I see (expanding service at GPIA) as a great tool to try to improve what we have here for job possibilities in the valley.

BEACON: The other airport, the municipal airport, where do you stand on it and the place we’re at now?

JOHNSON: The voters have spoken. I still am hesitant about what the end result is going to be, because I hear different reports that the runway is fine and other reports that it’s unbelievable and ‘I don’t know why I even land there.’ The city has an asset and it’s an enterprise fund, so it has to be self supportive. We have to look at all the different revenue sources we can, really just to hold the status quo, but also looking at if we have to do any kind of overlay or any kind of improvement, we’re going to have to determine, what are those sources of funds?

My concern is, what is the long-term funding? The other questions I have are some of the liability issues that have been pointed out. The study has been completed. We have it in black and white: we have an issue with radio towers to the south, we have an issue with the light poles at Legends Stadium. God forbid, if anything ever happened with one of those, my concern is that the city would be open for a lawsuit. To have something happen where we know there is the potential, it’s an issue for me. We need to mitigate those potential liabilities

If we see that (airport) disappear, what are the consequences? It may either be better for the south end of Kalispell, or it may be worse. We don’t know.

BEACON: This valley is unique in that there are multiple communities, and multiple governing bodies, tucked together closely. How do you plan to build relationships and work with other communities?

JOHNSON: I have a good relationship with the current mayor from Whitefish. We’ve known each other for a long time.

Each community has a different role in Flathead County. Whitefish and Bigfork have been huge with tourism. Columbia Falls has always been the industrial side of the Flathead Valley … Kalispell is really the business center, the business hub of the valley. How else can we team up with our neighboring communities and make sure we’re maintaining an attractive environment for tourists and maintaining an attractive business environment for everybody who wants to have a business here or move a business here? And, of course, we still want to be the home we are for our families. So it’s looking at each community and figuring, what can they bring? What can they deliver and what advantages can they offer? Columbia Falls will welcome business with open arms. Whitefish is very protective of its image and who they are. For branding, that’s good. They’ve done a good job with that. Kalispell, we’re working on that. Our brand is improving.

Don Barnhart up in Columbia Falls I’ve known forever. I can call Don and chat with him about different things in Columbia Falls. So I’ve good relationships with both mayors and look forward to working with them on different things, and the county commissioners.

BEACON: How do you feel about this new-look council? Do you think this council will be able to work together well and find consensus, or do you see potential gridlock?

JOHNSON: I don’t necessarily see gridlock. I see us working together. My concern is, you don’t have a healthy council if every vote is unanimous. That’s not a healthy council because not every member of this community is going to think the same way. I’ll agree to disagree with someone and I’ll respect their opinion. All the council members have their own opinions and their constituents that they have to answer to. On the easy topics, yes, unanimous decisions are simple. But when we get to weighty matters, I never expect to see unanimity in the decision. I never want to see that. If we see that, we haven’t discussed it thoroughly, we haven’t brought in everybody’s perspective that we need to and, in all reality, somebody’s not doing their job. If you disagree, stand up and say you disagree. That’s why we’re elected. It may not be popular but you have to do it, because there is somebody out there who has that same opinion and it needs to be heard. Sometimes, something that’s contentious, good things can develop out of that.

I’m looking forward to the council working together. I think we can work closely together but we need to communicate very openly and try to incorporate all those different visions, all those different thoughts.