Kalispell Moving Ahead with Core Area Plan

Engineering plans are underway for a proposed rail yard at the center of downtown Kalispell revitalization project

By Dillon Tabish

Four years and two missed grant opportunities later, Kalispell is pushing forward with its redevelopment plans for the downtown core area, hoping to kick start the expansive project through a local collaborative effort.

Officials from the city and Flathead County Economic Development Authority are focusing on the linchpin of the entire vision: developing an industrial railroad yard off Whitefish Stage Road, which would lead to the removal of the tracks in the heart of Kalispell, spurring a wide-range of possible revitalization projects in the historic center.

The city and FCEDA decided last week to commission an engineering blueprint for the empty 40-acre section of land off Whitefish Stage Road where the rail park is being proposed. The two partners will split the estimated cost of $700,000 to have engineers draw up the exact schematics of the site, including water, sewer, utility and other infrastructure.

When finished, the plan would provide a clearer picture of the rail yard, help attract businesses for the site and perhaps federal funding to support other components of the redevelopment strategy.

The rail yard has already attracted a lot interest from potential tenants, according to FCEDA.

“We bought this property with a vision. I think it’s going to benefit everybody. But there’s a lot of moving parts,” said Jeannie Luckey, vice chair of the FCEDA board.

“I’m optimistic that we can make it happen.”

Since being unveiled in 2012 after two years of development, Kalispell’s ambitious, multi-faceted core area revitalization plan has struggled to materialize due to a lack of funding sources.

Removing the railroad tracks in downtown is considered pivotal to the entire vision, but it would also require relocating CHS’s rail-served operations to another site, which is where the development of the rail yard factors in.

The city has estimated that it would cost $22 million to remove the railroad tracks, help relocate CHS, develop a trail system through town and reconnect several streets.

After back-to-back years of missing out on federal funding that could have been the project’s catalyst, officials from the city are taking the approach that if you want something done, do it yourself.

Instead of relying on federal grants, the city could tap into funds in the West Side Tax Increment Finance District in the near future to help remove the railroad tracks and develop part of the rail yard in the next 13 to 18 months, according to Kalispell City Manager Doug Russell.

The entire project would draw financial support from FCEDA and other entities, including BNSF Railway and CHS. By moving forward with the project at the local level, city officials hope the U.S. Department of Transportation would have an added incentive to provide support through the annual TIGER grant program, which Congress recently renewed for another year.

During the first quarter of 2015, the city and FCEDA will negotiate an agreement on the potential cost of relocating the tracks from downtown to the rail yard. The groups will also negotiate with BNSF over the acquisition of the land where the tracks currently run.

Russell and members of the FCEDA board briefed councilors last week, leading to widespread excitement among the group that the grand redevelopment project could be on the horizon.

“That rail park really allows us to focus on our core area, and right now we have a huge problem with indecisiveness in our core area in Kalispell,” said city councilor Phil Guiffrida. “We will have the ability to take this blighted area in Kalispell and really increase our tax base. In the end, this has huge benefits for all parties.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

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