When O’Brien Byrd looks down Nucleus Avenue in the heart of the community that raised him, he sees a time capsule of his childhood.
The old movie theater burned down and some of the storefronts have changed, but the quaint city center near Glacier National Park mostly appears as it always has. Quaint.
“Having been born and raised in Columbia Falls, I look at the last 40 years and not much has changed here,” he said. “We still don’t really have a vibrant downtown area. You look at towns like Bigfork and Whitefish and they are thriving because they have found a way to capture the tourists. So what are we doing wrong?”
This is a rhetorical question. Byrd knows firsthand what’s gone wrong in Columbia Falls, but right now he’s much more focused on what the community is doing right.
A decade ago, Byrd opened O’Brien’s Liquor and Wine in downtown Columbia Falls, but then closed his doors a year later due to a lack of business. He and his wife, Melanie, relocated to a storefront off of U.S. Highway 2, on the main drag of town.
Business took off, and after 10 years of steady growth the Byrds recently moved to more capacious digs on the corner of U.S. Highway 2 and First Avenue West near the city center. They hope to strengthen the town’s pulse by ushering visitors toward the heart of the community, where they say it’s challenging to survive as a small business because visitors pass it by.
“When we opened 10 years ago, we couldn’t survive in downtown,” he said. “That’s about to change. Things are different in Columbia Falls now. There is a new energy. People are getting excited again. I think because of that people are starting to look toward Columbia Falls and go ‘Wow, something’s happening here.’”
To spur that change, and as a testament to Columbia Falls being poised on the cusp of a potential renaissance, civic leaders and entrepreneurs are stepping up and standing in solidarity to promote the community.
Don Bennett, president of Freedom Bank in Columbia Falls, recently launched the Gateway Pride Project to help local businesses improve storefronts and enhance the appearance of the community.
The bank is offering unsecured loans of up to $5,000 with zero percent interest, no fees and a flexible, four-year payment schedule. The bank set aside $200,000 to facilitate the program, Bennett said, and recipients receive a 10 percent discount from Hanson’s Hardware and a contractor’s discount from Columbia Nursery for project materials.
“We’ve got about eight businesses that have indicated they are willing to take part in the program. It’s really been taking off and turning into a buzz in the community,” Bennett said.
Bennett launched the project as an incentive for business owners to give the downtown core a facelift and embark on outdoor improvement projects throughout the canyon, as far as West Glacier, a concept that plays to Columbia Falls’ brand as the “Gateway to Glacier National Park.”
The downtown area has already had some upgrades in the past year, with Xanterra Parks and Resorts – the concessioner for Glacier National Park – moving into and refurbishing the old First Citizens Bank building, converting what was previously a prominent gap in the community corridor into an active business.
City officials are also developing an urban renewal plan that would include a tax increment finance district, which is a mechanism used to spur economic redevelopment. If established, the TIF district would allow the city to direct property taxes that accrue with new development to urban renewal or redevelopment activities. Kalispell and Whitefish have successfully established TIF districts to help fund sizeable revitalization projects.
Two new auto stores – Auto Zone and O’Reilly’s – have also taken up residence on U.S. 2, resulting in a $1 million tax base increase for the city.
Darin Fisher is preparing to open a new microbrewery in Columbia Falls, called Backslope Brewing, with plans of opening in July or August, and The Palette Café will relocate to the new building to serve lunch and dinner. The Three Forks Grille also expanded, adding an old-style Italian deli with paninis, sandwiches, and specialty meats and cheeses. Up the road, Basecamp Café has been slinging breakfast downtown, while the new Teakettle Cafe is offering Asian cuisine.
Rep. Zac Perry, D-Columbia Falls, grew up here, and when the freshman legislator returned home from Helena after the Legislature’s transmittal break he said he was amazed at the new developments.
“I was in awe of all the positive developments taking place,” Perry said.
Casey Malmquist, the founder and general manager of the Columbia Falls-based SmartLam, a cross-laminated timber (CLT) facility, is preparing to expand his manufacturing plant at the Columbia Falls Industrial Park north of town. When complete, the facility will be the largest CLT plant in the world.
The Gateway-to-Glacier trail group has also been instrumental in establishing Columbia Falls as a destination for tourists who visit Glacier National Park. The group working to build a seamless bike path connecting Columbia Falls to Glacier, and the nonprofit was recently notified that it was on the short list of programs eligible for funds through the Federal Land Access Program, which is providing $635,000 with a 13 percent match from the Montana Department of Transportation.
Sarah Dakin, president of the nonprofit group, said the Flathead National Forest and MDT offered enormous support, while residents from West Glacier to Coram and Columbia Falls have been backing the project in droves.
“It’s truly been a collaborative effort because everyone recognizes the many benefits of this trail system,” Dakin said.
At their new location, the Byrds have opened for business in a 5,000-square-foot building while refurbishing the old Western Building Center lumber shed, where they’ll host a new community market that will accommodate 60 vendors and seven farmers.
And while Byrd is confident his new location near the city center will evolve into a community hub, he sees a reservoir of untapped potential.
“We’ve got 2.2 million tourists coming through Glacier National Park every year, and 95 percent of them are coming through Columbia Falls,” Byrd said. “But they look at us like we’re a pit-stop, and that’s not very flattering.”
To capture more of that tourist traffic, Byrd and Columbia Falls city officials have been advocating paving a section of the North Fork Road to Camas Road and into Glacier National Park to boost traffic through town and rebrand it as a true gateway community.
Whether to pave the Inside North Fork Road has been debated for years, but Glacier Park officials and residents along the North Fork of the Flathead River oppose the project, saying the Camas Road is not designed for the volume of traffic it would draw if it were to become a main entrance to Glacier.
Byrd said paving the road would be a game-changer for Columbia Falls, which could better showcase its new amenities, restaurants and shops.
Stacey Schnebel, president of the Columbia Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, said numerous pieces are falling into place for an economic resurgence, including the rise of a new, younger demographic buying homes, educating their children and starting and supporting new businesses.
There has also been a considerable increase in residential building activity in Columbia Falls, which issued more building permits last summer than all of the previous year, said Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia.
A new bike and pedestrian path from Columbia Falls and West Glacier will also provide a new conduit for tourism traffic while providing a safe and fun means of commuting, Schnebel said.
“The implication of a new trail is huge for tourism, but it would also improve the quality of life for residents. We are the new demographic. We are raising our families and we want to have these kinds of amenities in our communities, not just for us but also as a great draw for people visiting from other places,” Schnebel said.
But to say Columbia Falls’ future is brightening doesn’t change what it’s lacking in infrastructure. A downtown hotel has been a priority for years, and the city’s urban renewal plan, which lies the ground for a TIF district, will help meet that and other goals.
“We have these small businesses that are popping up that are very service-oriented, which indicates that there is discretionary income in and around Columbia Falls. It indicates that Columbia Falls is doing really well,” Schnebel said. “Here is this wonderful place at the front door of Glacier Park where you have this new family dynamic, where people and businesses are supporting one another, and hopefully that will attract that bigger industry.”
In Columbia Falls, it’s nearly impossible to utter the word “industry” without evoking opinions about the shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Company, which recently announced it was permanently closing its plant. The announcement was followed immediately with a decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take steps to list the contaminated property as a Superfund site.
The site is years away from being cleaned up, but as a suite of new and innovative businesses converge on the community, there’s an air of optimism about the site’s potential to spur a groundswell of development.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester worked tirelessly to reboot the aluminum manufacturing plant when CFAC’s owner, Glencore, closed it in 2009, citing high electricity rates and poor aluminum market conditions.
When it became clear the plant would not reopen, Tester took a stand in support of Superfund listing, calling the site a “diamond in the rough” that investors and developers have been showing interest in for years.
Last month, Tester met with community and business leaders, including Byrd, Bennett and Schnebel, and encouraged them to maintain their commitment to and enthusiasm about the city.
“You are sitting by a wonderful piece of God’s infrastructure called Glacier National Park,” Tester said. “If you can get them to stop because of your storefronts, you’ve already won the battle.”
Byrd said he’s never seen the community in a better position, and after 38 years of watching its economy either decline or plateau, he’s ready to shoot for the moon.
“It’s about to happen,” he said. “This town is ready for a change and people are really excited about it. I feel like we have been able to put our fingers on the pulse of the community and it’s strong.”