COLUMBIA FALLS – It’s a quiet city in Flathead County, located just west of Bad Rock Canyon and sitting at the beginning of the storied North Fork Road. There’s not a lot of fanfare about new development or potential projects, but there should be.
Columbia Falls is on the rise, poised to take significant steps in development and growth as the economy continues to strengthen and more people are building anew or building up.
“There is a lot of potential here,” Susan Nicosia, Columbia Falls city manager, said while taking a walk through the city’s downtown.
The downtown area has had some upgrades in the last year, with Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the concessioner for Glacier National Park, moving into and cleaning up the old First Citizens Bank building and turning what was previously a hole in the heart of the city into an active business.
Another major change is the expansion of O’Brien Liquor and Wine, which has been a mainstay on the U.S. Highway 2 stretch just west of downtown. O’Brien and Melanie Byrd bought the 5,000-square-foot building on the corner of U.S. Highway 2 and First Avenue West near downtown, which was previously owned by Western Building Center.
Initially, the couple said they hoped the new location would be open in time for Halloween. City officials said in early October that the Byrds hadn’t pulled any building permits for the location, but over the weekend of Oct. 4 and 5, the building and the parking lot had been cleaned up significantly.
Two new auto stores – Auto Zone and O’Reilly’s – have also taken up residence on U.S. 2, and Nicosia said they have resulted in a $1 million tax base increase for the city.
There has also been a considerable increase in residential building activity in Columbia Falls.
“We issued more building permits this summer than all of last year,” Nicosia said.
Barb Torres of the city’s building department said that since December 2013 up through October of this year, the city issued 22 permits for single-family homes, 10 for townhomes, two for six-plexes, and one for a duplex.
But the real activity has been in subdivisions that were platted several years ago but have just recently started coming to fruition.
“It’s been a great year for building for us,” Torres said. “We’re seeing great subdivisions that were platted years ago actually get homes in them.”
The Columbia Falls City Council has taken notice of the stabilizing economy, and has decided to start the process for a tax-increment finance district (TIF), likely to focus on Nucleus Avenue and the business-heavy section of Highway 2.
The council also decided to hire Janet Cornish of Community Development Services of Montana to assist in the TIF project.
The Montana Legislature created TIF districts as a way for cities to fund their own economic development. A TIF district has an increased tax within it, and the revenue gained from those taxes is placed in a special fund.
That money is then used for projects that improve the district and hopefully encourage business growth there.
Nicosia said the TIF money could help parts of the district add water and sewer infrastructure, which is currently sporadically placed along the U.S. Highway 2 section.
Having such a district in place could help attract a hotel to Columbia Falls, Nicosia said, which would be a boon for the city in many ways. The high school hosts tournaments for teams from around the state, but none stay in the city because there’s nowhere to stay, she said, which means the revenue that would go toward food and shopping ends up in Whitefish or Kalispell.
A hotel in Columbia Falls would also establish the city as the true Gateway to Glacier, providing a solid base camp for visitors.
Columbia Falls has looked into the TIF idea before. It started in 2000, but then a reappraisal shakeup in 2001 from the Legislature led to significant drops in the city’s mill amounts. In 2001, the taxable valuation of a mill dropped to $4,119, when in 1999 it had been $4,813.
“We didn’t come back to our 2000 level until the ‘05 fiscal year,” Nicosia said.
Burgeoning growth in the mid-2000s, when the city’s population increased by 23 percent, helped get the taxable valuations back on track.
“It took every ounce of growth we had to fund our city,” Nicosia said.
The TIF idea is in its nascent stages, and there will be many public meetings on it, starting at the end of October. Nicosia said the council hopes to have it worked out and sent to the Department of Revenue for approval toward the end of the 2015 legislative session.
Kellie Danielson, president and CEO of Montana West Economic Development, said a TIF district could benefit Columbia Falls.
“When we look at what the TIF has achieved in Whitefish and downtown Kalispell, it really did build infrastructure and spur development,” she said. “It’s worked in the other cities fairly well, so why not try to achieve that?”
Danielson also said her office is regularly fielding inquiries about the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company site, but any change or development there would have to wait until Glencore, CFAC’s parent company, decides what to do with the shuttered plant.
“There are always people asking us about that property,” Danielson said. “It definitely is attractive to potential industrial users because of the power services, because the amount of acreage, because of the rail there.”
Nicosia also said there is potential for the city to take over from the state Department of Transportation the right of way at the southern end of Nucleus, possibly to add an arch or signage directing people downtown.
It’s just another way to let visitors know that Columbia Falls is open for business.
“We will create something that will tell people, ‘Come here!,’” Nicosia said.
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