As Future Plans Emerge in South Kalispell, Age-Old Airport Debate Remains Unsettled

Fate of city airport looms large as engineers craft redevelopment strategy for southern corridor

By Dillon Tabish
File photo by Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon

There are vast sections of land on the south end of Kalispell ripe for commercial and residential development, a new public school and community trails and parks.

There is also a 71-acre airport mired in conflict planted smack dab in the middle of it all.

A team of out-of-town engineers hired by the city to study the wide range of redevelopment opportunities in the southern gateway has run into one of Kalispell’s age-old conundrums involving the municipal airport.

“This (urban renewal) project as it was originally conceived is much greater than just the airport. Although, of course, the catalyst for this project is what to do with the airport,” Wayne Freeman, a planner with CTA Architects Engineers, told city officials and board members at last week’s Airport Advisory meeting in City Hall.

After four months of gathering public input and surveying the area to create an updated redevelopment plan for south Kalispell, CTA has formed a preliminary list of improvement options that could reshape and revitalize the area, including added green space, updated roads and business amenities.

But the central topic looms large with little consensus in the community over what should be done with the airport.

Roughly 100 people completed a CTA survey and dozens more provided input during public meetings in recent months. Of those, 74 percent were in favor of keeping the airport and 26 percent wanted to phase out operations and eliminate the site, according to CTA.

However, the picture is less clear when it comes to nailing down the exact future of the airport. Of those in favor of “keeping the airport,” 42 percent want it to remain in its current configuration while 32 percent want to upgrade the site to FAA compliance.

“What that ends up telling us is we got a split community with regards to the airport,” Freeman said.

The divided opinions call to mind the hotly contested ballot referendum in 2013, when the city debated whether to upgrade the airport to FAA safety standards. After years of back and forth among the city council, Kalispell voters rejected the proposal, 1,886 votes to 1,535.

Over the next five months, CTA’s team will form a more comprehensive plan with recommendations and options for the entire south Kalispell area, Freeman said. The final report will be presented to the city council in the fall.

The report will include the finer details of three options for the airport — keep it in its current state; bring it into FAA compliance; or phase it out and eventually close the airport.

Although voters rejected the previous request to use federal funds to upgrade the site, there are lingering safety issues that remain unaddressed and “hazardous,” Freeman said.

CTA has already identified safety needs at the 86-year-old airport that could initially cost $500,000.

“There are hazardous situations on your taxiway runways,” Freeman said. “There’s half a million dollars needed just for immediate improvements.”

The options explained in CTA’s report could include revisiting the FAA funds and creating an airport authority that would take control of the site and its operations from the city. Roughly one-third of the nation’s general aviation airports like Kalispell’s are ran by an airport authority, which is a separate private entity that is established to run an airport “more like a business,” Freeman said.

The airport authority could help attract adjacent businesses that improve revenues at the site, Freeman said.

Another option that will be studied is the closure of the airport, Freeman said. If the city council arrived at this decision, it would require buying out the leases at the site, which could prove problematic because of the various different agreements. Freeman was hesitant to name a dollar figure but estimated that it could cost the city a few million dollars to buy out the leases. CTA will further study the potential costs associated with closing the site and present those details in the fall when the final report is unveiled, he said.

The physical layout of the airport does present challenges if it were transformed into something else but there are potential large-scale developments that could fit in its place, Freeman said.

Freeman emphasized that the South Kalispell Urban Renewal Plan will not focus solely on the airport.

He cited public support for more trails, bike paths and even a dog park within the area’s growing residential neighborhoods. There is also interest in blending business development, including light industrial and commercial, into the open landscape.

Expanding and improving Cemetery Road has already emerged as a priority, he said. The continued growth of development in the area will put added pressure on the narrow two-lane road, as well as the likely development of a new elementary school on Airport Road in the near future, Freeman said.

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