This week, Beacon staffers get the opportunity to sit down with Kalispell city officials to discuss the future of downtown. We aren’t the only ones. Apparently, local planners are picking the brains of a number people who work in the core of the largest city in Northwest Montana. It’s a much-needed exercise.
Since I moved to the Flathead several years ago, a number of potential plans to revitalize and reenergize downtown have been discussed to varying degrees. Some have failed to materialize, like the proposed arts and entertainment center. But in many ways, this is the most momentum city officials have had for improving the city’s historic area.
Take the Kalispell Core Area Revitalization Plan, which brushes up against the north end of downtown. City officials continue to compete for millions in federal funding to begin the project, but the blueprint is widely supported, which is a good first step. It was crafted with community input and involves replacing railroad tracks that cut through the city with a series of trails and reconnects streets that presently dead-end at those tracks.
Now city officials are beginning to discuss the future of downtown, which has improved in recent years, albeit slowly. Recently, Kalispell has erected improved signage and in recent years hired someone to clean the area for the Kalispell Business Improvement District. New businesses have sprung up, including the Kalispell Brewing Co., which completely gutted a Main Street building and reopened to much fanfare last week.
Businesses like those, such as Sweet Peaks Ice Cream and Kalispell Comics, are what the city needs. It needs vendors that attract and keep people near the city center. And it still has a long way to go.
There are too many vacancies in the core area and many of the buildings need to be renovated before potential businesses can move in. If a business owner doesn’t have the money to invest, it’s hard to argue it’s worth moving to the city. There are already a few great restaurants, retailers and galleries here, but we should attract more.
Also, the traffic noise in downtown can be unbearably loud – the city is an echo chamber and it’s difficult for pedestrians to carry on conversations when tractor-trailers are rumbling by. That should improve once the U.S. 93 bypass is completed.
The public campaign to first gather feedback and then craft a vision is called “THE Downtown Plan,” in which city officials first hope to identify and then begin exploring solutions for myriad issues in Kalispell.
The city has already mailed newsletters to residences and businesses in the downtown area explaining the project and is going to begin taking inventory of how many buildings are vacant and in disrepair. Other needs, such as ample parking, are likely to surface.
Kalispell has its advantages. Its housing is relatively affordable. It is located in the heart of the valley. It is the county seat and employs, by far, the most people in the area. And regarding downtown, it still has the bones of an attractive, historical city. But it could use a facelift, even if it’s just minor.
The public and private sectors are beginning to discuss downtown’s future and at just the right time. While growth on the north side of Kalispell will continue for years to come, as it should, the core of the city can complement and even foster that growth.
A city’s identity is gleaned from its downtown area. And right now Kalispell is deciding what it wants to look like. So, if you live or work in this area, make sure you provide some constructive feedback. The city is taking notes.