Kalispell Turns its Attention South

By Beacon Staff

The north end of Kalispell remains a bustling tract of economic activity, as six new large commercial developments and multiple smaller ones are poised to break ground in the near future. The downtown has a chance to evolve into a redeveloped core area with the help of a new ambitious vision that could unfold in the coming years. And now the city’s south entrance is gaining attention, with city officials revisiting a far-reaching plan for urban renewal opportunities in the prominent gateway that funnels U.S. Highway 93 from Flathead Lake into the heart of Kalispell.

“It’s a very exciting time. We’re looking at all these things coming together and there’s so much work being done for the future,” said City Manager Doug Russell. “We’re preparing ourselves for how to best incorporate growth into the fabric of the community.”

Last week’s work session inside City Hall was solely devoted to the southern entrance of Kalispell and the area’s urban renewal plan, which was formed nearly 20 years ago as a guiding document for redevelopment goals.

Now that the 1996 plan has achieved its primary goals, particularly the relocation of the ballfields to Kidsports Complex, Russell is proposing to create a new blueprint that would identify all possible options in the area, rallying municipal resources and heavy community and stakeholder input, similar to how the recent Core Area Redevelopment Plan came together.

The proposal drew strong interest from the city council, and Russell said he would begin the process by meeting with the Urban Renewal Agency for a launching point.

By turning its attention to the south, the city council would be forced to address a thorny subject with an uncertain future: the municipal airport. The fate of the controversial site has been in limbo since voters shot down a host of proposed upgrades in November, creating more questions than answers related to its current and future status.

Russell and others agreed that by updating the vision for south Kalispell, the community could arrive at a clearer understanding of what it wants to do with the 84-year-old airport.

“I think it’s time to inquire within the community on the south end of Kalispell, if the airport stays or if it goes, what happens long term?” Mayor Mark Johnson said, adding, “Does it make sense to change the direction of the airport and find an alternate use of that property?”

Those answers, and others connected to development on the south end, would be best found with extensive public scoping, Russell said.

“That’s the value of the plan, it’s a community-driven process, so it lends validity to that long-term effort,” Russell said.

Councilor Kari Gabriel raised concerns over ongoing safety issues, particularly the nearby radio towers that the city has identified as a hazard for planes.

The process of developing an updated urban renewal plan could take years, she said.

“What are we going to do now to get that airport at a point where it’s safe, currently and in the very near future?” she said.

Russell said the city would decide what safety upgrades and other maintenance items would be included in the fiscal budget for the airport, which is being maintained by contractor Red Eagle Aviation.

In many ways, the south end of Kalispell has largely been overshadowed in recent years by the booming economic emergence on the north side and renewed effort on downtown’s vitality.

But now that the U.S. 93 Alternate Route is finally materializing and approaching completion, the prominent role of the south entrance is returning to the fore.

“It’s the true gateway. There are a lot of people rolling up from the lake into Kalispell. That’s a big part of the reason why we did our development there,” said Shannon Nalty, who purchased the Southfield Tower and completed the remainder of the Southfield Park buildings, including the Forum and The Plaza. “I’m pleased that the focus and attention are coming back to the south.”

Nalty has already seen an increase in economic activity and interest at the south end. As he pointed out, the area boasts the benefits of strong utility and transportation infrastructure, as well as a large crop of hotels that would lend to new development. Nalty also sees a great opportunity for technology companies to plant roots.

A landmark on the south, The Outlaw Inn, has new owners who are rebranding the property as The Guesthouse Inn and Suites and Outlaw Convention Center. A new Fred’s Appliance retail store is being developed near Gardner Auction. Interest has also picked up around the intersection where the completed stretch of bypass will start.

“The city is doing a good job of starting to address growth in a methodical way,” Nalty said.

On the eve of construction season, City Hall has already approved several building permits that are ready to issue, including a group of large construction projects that will soon surround Cabela’s on the north end. According to the city’s planning department, the incoming businesses include: ULTA, a cosmetics retailer; Michael’s, an arts and crafts retailer; Boot Barn, a Western wear clothing and boot franchise; PetSmart, a retail chain for pet supplies; Verizon Wireless; and five smaller individual stores grouped in the same site. MacKenzie River Grill and Pub is already under construction near Cabela’s, and another restaurant has expressed interest in an adjacent space for future development.

City staff are trying to give a significant boost to the expansive redevelopment plan for downtown Kalispell by applying yet again for a federal grant that would help spur the development of an industrial rail park. The planned 90-acre industrial site between Whitefish Stage Road and U.S. Highway 2 did not make the cut last year, when Flathead County fell short in its bid for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant. A new and improved application is being organized and will be submitted before the deadline later this month. The rail park is considered a vital part of the Core Area Plan, which depends largely on the removal of the railroad tracks through downtown.

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