Kalispell Updates Economic Growth Strategy

City revises its growth policy with focus on key projects, including downtown vitality and transforming transportation options

By Dillon Tabish

The opening line of Kalispell’s updated growth policy offers a bold statement about the present — the city is at a turning point in its history and its future.

It’s not an unrealistic prediction. As Northwest Montana’s increasingly bustling economic hub, Kalispell has already undergone a noticeable transformation in recent decades. Now city officials are preparing for the latest chapter of growth as several key factors come together.

The U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route is within two years of being fully completed, a milestone that could largely reshape the city’s transportation grid. A far-reaching redevelopment plan for the core area is awaiting a catalyst, which could arrive in the next few months, while a new effort focused on reinvigorating downtown is coalescing. Commercial and residential development have picked up considerably each year since the recession, and 2014 appears on pace with past gains.

To prepare for impending growth, city officials and members of the Kalispell Planning Board have spent the past two years focusing on the city’s growth policy, a comprehensive document that lays out a framework for guiding — but not dictating — the community’s development for the next 20 years. The 123-page plan, which is updated every five years, encompasses a long-range strategy for ensuring “Kalispell is a unique and vibrant place for people to live, work and play — now and into the future,” the document states.

“(A growth policy is) important because it gives identity to the city for organizational purposes,” said city councilor Chad Graham, who also serves on the planning board.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to get there?”

The city is holding a public hearing on the updated policy at 7 p.m., Oct 6 inside City Hall. After that the city council will decide whether to adopt the proposed 2020 plan, which would establish the policy as a community blueprint that planners, businesses and residents can turn to for insight and information about the city’s past, present and future.

“It tells people who we are and where we’re going,” Graham said.

This latest document revision features a set of unique goals that are relatively new to the city. The plan lays out five key projects that will play significant roles in the coming years — the Core Area Redevelopment Plan, the Downtown Plan, the South Kalispell Urban Renewal Plan, Kalispell Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan and the Kalispell Transportation Plan.

Compared to previous editions, this latest growth policy features an added emphasis on downtown and keeping it viable into the future, according to Kalispell’s Planning Director Tom Jentz.

Jentz said the city council seems to be largely in favor of maintaining downtown Kalispell as a strong, vibrant city center. There’s also the need to update the city’s transportation plan as the bypass prepares to approach completion.

“Transportation in Kalispell is really changing as we speak,” Jentz said. “We really need to rethink how we handle transportation in our community. The time to do that is now.”

Part of that transportation plan includes a separate but connected focus on bicycle and pedestrian resources, which Kalispell is lacking, according to city officials.

“This isn’t something trendy that we’re trying to do; it’s a concept we lost,” Jentz said. “The original Kalispell was a very walkable, sidewalk community. We just lost our way and said we don’t need those features. Now we are struggling with years of neglect.”

That includes a lengthy stretch of U.S. 93 between downtown Kalispell and the north side of town that does not feature sidewalk. Instead pedestrians must walk in the brush or along the shoulder of the highway, creating a sizeable safety hazard, according to city officials. A planned sidewalk development for that section of prominent road has been approved and funded but is awaiting design and implementation by the Montana Department of Transportation.

The South Kalispell Urban Renewal Plan will look at development opportunities in the area south of the courthouse and around the city airport. Following the citizen’s referendum that opted out of further upgrading the airport, city officials are seeking a true direction for the airport and surrounding area. Kalispell Public Schools is moving forward with a planned acquisition of 25 acres along Airport Road that would potential develop into a middle school and elementary school in the coming years. The addition of large school facilities, along with the completion of the bypass is expected to usher in a noticeable transformation in the area, and city planners are hoping to address that growth in a responsible manner, which is the overall goal of the growth policy.

“Our challenge is to shepherd that growth and to allow the community to be real and to maintain our identity and not become every other place in the country,” said senior planner Kevin LeClair. “We need to continue to offer Kalispell as Kalispell. We can’t lose that.”

Click here to read the proposed growth policy.

Five Key Focal Points of the Kalispell Growth Policy

 Source: City of Kalispell Planning Department

Core Area Plan

Adopted by the City Council in 2012, this expansive project looks at developing a rail-served industrial park off Whitefish Stage Road and then replacing the railroad tracks that run through downtown with a linear park and trail system. This plan also aims for redevelopment of infrastructure, such as sidewalks, and nurturing a mixed-use economic sector in the heart of town. The timeline for this plan hinges largely on the acquisition of a federal transportation grant that could infuse funding into the rail park this fall or early winter.

Downtown Plan

This project, which launched this summer, will take “a careful and considerate look at Kalispell’s historic downtown and courthouse corridor and identify the area’s key strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and then prioritize and address the issues to energize and reinforce the historic downtown’s role as the heart of Kalispell,” according to city staff. Part of the planning process will address proposals to reshape the U.S. Highway 93 couplet around the courthouse, and the potential downsizing of traffic lanes through downtown.

South Kalispell Urban Renewal Plan

This surfacing project will explore and evaluate future scenarios facing the residential and commercial areas around the city airport and along U.S. 93 South, with the goal of establishing a land use vision that can be fostered and built in the coming years.

Kalispell Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan

In the past year, city staff has surveyed the city’s sidewalk and trail inventory and using that information. Using that information, planners hope to create a conceptual pedestrian and bicycle network and prioritize key missing links in the system. Another emphasis will be looking at improving and increasing the community’s non-motorized mobility options.

Kalispell Transportation Plan

Considered an “imminent” priority in the city, this plan was last updated in 2008 before the U.S. 93 Alternate Route, or bypass, was near completion. With the bypass potentially being completed within two years, city officials are preparing to see a potentially drastic change in traffic patterns in and around the city. This plan would work to ensure the road network keeps pace with growth and evolves with the changing traffic patterns. This could include realignments of city streets and reconnections in disjointed neighborhoods.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.