Xanterra Buoys Columbia Falls Economy

New Glacier Park concessioner adds facilities, jobs to vacant corner of town

By Tristan Scott

A formerly vacant lot at Main and Center streets in Columbia Falls has been transformed into a warehouse and laundry facility by Glacier National Park’s newest concessioner, Xanterra Parks and Resorts, and the addition of jobs appears to be stimulating the economy, according to business and community leaders.

“The Xanterra management has been extremely busy getting their operation up and going,” City Manager Susan Nicosia said of the improvements since Xanterra employees arrived in earnest several months ago. “The enhancement to the two buildings that have stood vacant and unused for several years is the first thing that comes to my mind – the conversion of a dilapidated block to a thriving operation is extremely positive.  The influence of having 40-60 employees in the city is also very positive and should benefit the local restaurants and stores.”

And while Nicosia acknowledged that the entire extent of the company’s presence remains to be seen, the addition of Xanterra employees is welcome.

Last summer, the National Park Service announced it had selected Xanterra to operate lodging, retail, transportation and food and drink services inside Glacier National Park. The contract lasts 16 years. The agreement requires Xanterra to replace much of the lodging furnishings throughout the park; remodel selected guest rooms in the Many Glacier Hotel and Lake McDonald Lodge; improve food and beverage services at Heidi’s in Many Glacier and the Two Medicine Campstore; improve sustainable and healthy food options; and add two handicap accessible tour buses to the Red Bus fleet. Xanterra must also establish a Red Bus maintenance fund.

Marc Ducharme, general manager for Xanterra’s Glacier operation, said the company purchased the former Pamida department store buildings in Columbia Falls, behind Montana Coffee Traders, and converted one building into an administrative office while the other has been transformed into a state-of-the-art laundry and a warehouse for storage.

The historic Red Bus fleet, which includes 33 White Motor Company tour buses built between 1936 and 1939, will be moved from its garage in East Glacier Park to a hangar at the Glacier Jet Center, at Glacier Park International Airport.

Ducharme said the buses will be stored and maintained there during the 2014 season while Xanterra builds a new “state-of-the-art maintenance facility” outside Columbia Falls.

Xanterra purchased a 10-acre parcel of land on Hwy 206 by the Badrock Fire Hall, and is in the initial stages of choosing a general contractor and architect to start developing the building.

“We hope to break ground sometime in August, however, we don’t anticipate the completion of that Red Bus storage until sometime in early spring 2015,” Ducharme said.

The smaller building adjacent to the laundry and warehouse, which also was a Pamida, will house the company’s local administrative offices, where 30 full-time staff will work.

For its Glacier Park operation, Xanterra hired about 35 full-time employees and 600 seasonal employees.

Fifteen employees work at laundry, running May through October. Overall, Xanterra employs about 50 full-time and 600 seasonal workers in Glacier Park operations.

Next door to the Xanterra operations, Montana Coffee Traders manager Carla Fisher said she’s seen an uptick in business, and recognizes many familiar faces each morning and afternoon.

“We see a lot of them every morning for coffee and they come in for lunch,” Fisher said.

The facelift to the buildings, which is ongoing, has also changed the integrity of the block, she said.

“In general, having that positive energy in town has gotten people excited to see something happening to make things look nicer, and they have plans for sprucing up the area even more,” Fisher said.

A new sidewalk and additional landscaping are all part of Xanterra’s plan to improve the lot.

Stacey Schnebel, vice president of the Columbia Falls Chamber of Commerce and president of the Trapline Association, said although it’s too early to gauge the scope of Xanterra’s impact on the community, the increase in jobs has shown positive results

“I think over all we are seeing a boost in the local economy,” she said.

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