Character Building

How will potential changes affect the character of downtown? This is a legitimate question. How traffic moves through the city concerns nearly everyone who works in the core of the city

By Kellyn Brown

Stories have been written lately referencing the character of a city and how to balance that with new development, construction and, in some cases, tenants. It is an age-old conversation and one worth having. Just about everybody wants growth, but almost as many have an opinion about how an area should grow.

In Whitefish, the Mountain Mall is growing, or at least will be getting a facelift when a 37,500-square-foot Shopko Hometown moves in next year. A handful of tenants will be displaced and, before the lease was signed, a Facebook page called “Whitefish Shopko? No thank you” popped up online. Arguments against the chain retailer opening up shop ranged from valid concerns for those businesses that must relocate to less convincing reasons, such as Shopko not fitting the character of the town.

On other end of this equation are those residents or visitors in Whitefish who must drive to Kalispell to buy a pair of underwear. That, and the lack of availability of other household goods, made it inevitable that Shopko, or another department store like it, would eventually open its doors in a fast-growing city. Moreover, the store will be located on the outskirts of town in an existing mall that is home to several vacant storefronts.

Meanwhile, in Kalispell, a discussion has begun in earnest about what to do with the couplet that circles the courthouse on the south end of downtown. Right now, the road narrows to one lane each way and the Montana Department of Transportation, city and county officials are discussing how to best improve Kalispell’s Main Street – a busy thoroughfare that is unique in that it also a highway.

How will potential changes affect the character of downtown? This is a legitimate question. How traffic moves through the city concerns nearly everyone who works in the core of the city.

Suggested changes are preliminary – there will be public meetings between now and when a decision is made – but initial opinions vary widely about what to do with the road that surrounds the county campus.

From MDT’s point of view, the road needs to change regardless of design to accommodate the amount of traffic. And there are several options on the table.

One plan would simply expand the road to two lanes on either side of the courthouse. Another option, unanimously supported by the Flathead County Commission, is removing the road on the west side of the building and adding four lanes of northbound and southbound traffic on the east side. The county argues that this would better connect its campus and make it safer for the employees who work there.

That leaves the city of Kalispell, which appears concerned about both options. It should be. I talked to one city official who said if the couplet is expanded it’s “game over” – Kalispell will forever be known as the town with highway cutting through it and any momentum to make it more pedestrian friendly would be lost.

City councilors and the mayor say the city should further study the matter. Kalispell’s senior planner, Kevin LeClair, speaking at a scoping meeting, said that downtown businesses are already concerned about congestion on Main Street.

“This is a watershed moment,” LeClair said. “Is Main Street going to be a highway or Kalispell’s Main Street?”

It’s a valid question and goes right to the heart of the city’s character. Wasn’t the point of building the U.S. 93 bypass to reduce downtown traffic, especially tractor-trailers? Now that the state is one phase away from completing the alternate route, it seems premature to widen Main Street, speeding vehicles through Kalispell as city officials discuss ways to reroute or slow those same vehicles down.

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