Three years ago, when Maggie Doherty and Cole Schneider first envisioned opening a brewery in Kalispell, they had a dream location in mind right away.
“Being downtown was probably the top thing for us because we felt like downtowns are the lifeblood of any community,” Doherty said. “Architecturally, I think Kalispell has one of the prettiest downtowns, at least in northwestern Montana. And we knew there was a great community here and that this downtown was ready for something like this.”
Challenges aside, they were right on. In only the few weeks since Kalispell Brewing Company opened on the corner of Fourth and Main streets, the new business has been welcomed with open arms and is thriving in the heart of the city.
“We’ve been bulled over. It’s been just crazy,” Doherty said. “We’re going through a lot more beer than we thought.”
Doherty and Schneider have even received handwritten thank-you letters from residents appreciating their investment and belief in downtown.
“We’ve been so humbled by that,” she said.
The new brewery has emerged as a success story in a downtown yearning for economic momentum and at a time of renewed emphasis within the city center.
Kalispell has a new project in the works aimed at stimulating similar business success in the central corridor. By interviewing business owners and stakeholders, city planners hope to identify collective issues that could be hampering economic activity. After accomplishing that, they plan on crafting a strategy for solving them.
Staff members have already met with a dozen people in recent weeks and continue along with their expansive survey effort, gathering input and information that will be analyzed in the coming months.
“The response has been an overwhelming thumbs up,” said Kevin LeClair, the city’s senior planner. “People have been so glad this is happening and they feel like it’s been a long time coming.”
Indeed, businesses looking to open shop in any historic downtown face unique challenges and the same is true in Kalispell, a city that shares Main Street as a major U.S. highway and has seen a bulk of economic activity shift to the burgeoning north district in recent years.
Nearly a half-dozen downtown storefronts still sit vacant, and a few businesses have shuttered in recent months, including a longtime frame shop.
At the same time, other development has thrived and new interest has surfaced. A Starbucks coffee shop is under construction on the corner of Main and Center streets. Another new business, a vintage furniture and gift store named Bestow, is opening at 217 Main Street, and just down the street interest is swirling around the former Army Navy store, a large empty storefront.
“I’m very optimistic and excited but we can’t relax yet. We can’t get comfortable with what we have. We still need to make an effort as a community to support the downtown core and it’s revitalization and redevelopment,” said Stan Converse of Cedar House Partners, a firm that invests and manages commercial and residential property, including a vacant storefront in downtown.
Converse, whose firm is seeking potential restaurateurs to move into their downtown location, said the initial investment and eventual success of the Kalispell Brewing Company, along with other businesses such as Brannigan’s and the Loading Dock sites, have helped the downtown as a whole by leading by example.
“When you’re assembling your market survey and looking for reasons to make a new investment, that’s a strong indicator of potential,” Converse said. “Brannigan’s and the brewery, that was really a trigger for us.”
Doherty hopes to see other businesses similarly thrive, and she said she is encouraged by the city’s new scoping efforts.
“I’m hoping people who answer the survey will be very honest,” she said. “And I hope the city will be responsive.”
There are significant hurdles that prospective businesses currently face, according to Doherty. She said the new brewery struggled with constant hurdles during its development, including high impact fees and unclear expectations throughout the planning and building process. She acknowledged that a brewery is a unique type of business that requires unique services, but in her mind the entire process of being allowed to develop a new business downtown was overly challenging.
“There are systems in place right now that are very troubling. We got discouraged. We worked hard to be in downtown,” she said. “I feel like we’re fairly educated, smart people with great resources and I was pulling my hair out. I can only imagine that everyone struggles.”
Nevertheless, she believes in downtown and wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else.
“Kalispell is the hub. It’s where all the young professionals are. It’s the government center and I think people are seeing that. Old and young, we have all walks of life here,” she said. “I think people want their downtown back. We want these things to thrive.”