A renewed effort from within City Hall is giving downtown Kalispell a chance to reinforce itself as the vibrant, historic center of the community.
City planners and development managers are embarking on a public campaign this month to gather feedback from business owners, residents and other stakeholders about the downtown corridor, an area that stretches south from Center Street to the county courthouse and encompasses a two-block radius west and east of Main Street.
Dubbed “THE Downtown Plan,” the project is taking a similar approach to the well-documented Kalispell Core Area Revitalization Plan, the city’s ambitious redevelopment vision that grew from public input into a popular renewal effort.
While potential opportunities abound in the core area, the historic neighborhoods surrounding Main Street fell just outside the boundaries of the revitalization plan, leading some residents to ask city officials, what about downtown?
“There is a lot of momentum and a lot of support for the core area plan. As we got that process down, the obvious question we have heard from a lot of downtown business owners and merchants is what about us?” Kevin LeClair, the city’s senior planner, said. “Downtown is the heart of Kalispell, and how do we help it stay strong?”
The project has several goals, but the primary focus centers on identifying problems or issues in the area and then finding solutions.
“Once we know what are the challenges for most people, most businesses and most building owners, then we know what the highest priorities are. Then we can get to work solving it,” LeClair said. “If we don’t have a good idea what the issues are, solving them becomes futile; at best it would be inefficient.”
Many issues are already commonly agreed upon, like the lack of parking and congestion of heavy traffic flowing down Main Street, which remains the main artery of U.S. 93. There are also well-known concerns about insufficient infrastructure for buildings needing to connect to the city’s underground water system.
Indeed, reinventing the historic identity of the city is hardly a simple process, and the questions and answers for how to proceed loom large.
Yet it appears to be an opportune time for renewal. Economic recovery has spurred increased business activity, bolstering Kalispell as the regional trade center. The decades-long process of developing the U.S. 93 Alternate Route, a bypass that could transform the city’s transportation grid in many ways, is nearing conclusion. And the city council has expressed a consensus of support for reinforcing historic downtown as the heart of the community.
This month, informational newsletters were mailed out to every resident and business in the downtown area, explaining the project. The city’s Planning Department and Department of Community and Economic Development are spearheading the effort, and in the coming weeks, staff will conduct interviews with the public, similar to the scoping process for the core area plan. This process will continue until fall, at which point the staff will categorize and prioritize the information and begin crafting a strategy with solutions.
City staff will begin by creating a comprehensive inventory of the neighborhood: How many businesses, employees and residents are in downtown? How many buildings are vacant? What is the condition of the infrastructure?
After that, the attention will turn to the benefits of downtown: What makes it unique? What are its strengths?
“We already know some of the answers, but we don’t know all of the answers. We really need to hear it from the people who are feeling it,” LeClair said.
Building a stronger, healthier downtown is the overall goal, he said, and by doing that the entire community would benefit.
“Downtown sets your community identity,” he said.