Kalispell’s Ambitious Redevelopment Plan Gathers Support

City leaders pledge funds for Kalispell rail park, downtown trail system while holding out hope for federal grant

By Dillon Tabish
Train tracks are seen on the north side of Depot Park in downtown Kalispell. The city is looking at the future development of Kalispell’s corridor which could include replacing the tracks with a pedestrian walkway. - Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

When David Peterson travels from his office in downtown Spokane to downtown Kalispell, he sees two cities at different stages of a similar vision.

For decades, Spokane struggled to transform its core area from an historic industrial hub to a modern commercial center due in large part to the impediment of railroad tracks slicing through the heart of the city. Then, in the 1960s and early 70s, a group of civic and business leaders spearheaded an ambitious plan that included relocating the rail lines. As it happens, the tactic sparked massive private redevelopment and ushered in a new era for the growing city.

“Since that time there have been millions of dollars of investment because of the removal of the tracks,” Peterson said. “It took a really blighted area and it allowed for a tremendous amount of growth that benefitted the entire community.”

Of course, Spokane dwarfs Kalispell in size and scope. But Peterson, executive vice president of the Spokane-based firm that owns the Kalispell Center Mall, sees similar opportunities on the horizon.

City leaders are forging ahead with their own ambitious plan that could significantly reshape the core area of Kalispell in the coming years by relocating the downtown railroad tracks, reconnecting centrally located streets and developing a trail system.

Earlier this week the city council pledged $4.5 million in tax increment finance (TIF) funds that could be used for the downtown revitalization projects, including the creation of an industrial railroad complex off Whitefish Stage Road.

The $21 million rail park is the linchpin for the entire vision — its creation allows for relocating the tracks and rail-served businesses that could spur further redevelopment in the historic center — and after several years the project is finally materializing.

The city’s pledge combines with confirmed matches of $500,000 by BNSF Railway and $40,000 a year for five years from Mission Mountain Railroad, two stakeholders that are both on board with creating the 40-acre complex.

Engineers are completing the final layout of the proposed park while Flathead County Economic Development Authority, which is spearheading the project, continues to negotiate an agreement with CHS for relocating the company’s grain elevator on Center Street and other operations.

Kim Morisaki, business development manager at FCEDA, said an agreement could be reached by mid-summer followed by bids for breaking ground. Two other businesses have also seriously inquired about developing on site, she said.

The timeframe for the entire project hinges on one significant factor that has prevented anything from happening sooner.

This week city officials submitted their latest application for $10 million in federal transportation funding through the TIGER program. It is the third attempt in as many years. Kalispell will vie for federal support against cities across the nation, but local officials feel confident that the third time could be the charm.

Katharine Thompson, the city’s community development manager, said Kalispell’s application will show why the project could transform the core area and trigger significant redevelopment, as well as improve safety. Four pedestrians have died in the downtown area in the past 21 years, including two on Center Street.

Grants will be awarded in fall.

If Kalispell receives funding, the entire rail park and trail project could be completed within three years, Morisaki said. If not, the industrial complex would surface one business at a time and could take twice as long.

Peterson, at the Kalispell Center Mall, is optimistic. He said expansion plans have already been developed for the mall. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if other businesses in the area were also waiting eagerly to reinvest once the tracks were removed.

“This could be a win-win for everyone,” he said. “We think that downtown Kalispell and the entire Flathead Valley will benefit.”