Following opposition from a downtown business over Kalispell’s proposed industrial rail park, members of the city council are pledging their ongoing support for the redevelopment project while the organization behind the planned enterprise is maintaining its commitment to moving forward.
Councilors at the Aug. 17 meeting in City Hall expressed dismay at the letter submitted by the owners of Northwest Drywall and Roofing Supply recently to the federal Department of Transportation and Montana’s delegation of lawmakers withdrawing support for the rail park. Attorney Tom Esch, on behalf of the family owned company that is one of two rail-served businesses in downtown, called the project a “boondoggle in the making” in the letter, questioned its feasibility and said the company would suffer outsized debt and decreased revenues by relocating to the future rail park.
Pam and Mike Mower, owners of Northwest Drywall and Roofing, defended their stance in a letter to the Beacon Aug. 21, saying they are “disturbed by the economics of the proposed rail park from a lease or purchase, business standpoint.”
Councilors disagreed with the Mowers’ assessment, praising the efforts of Flathead County Economic Development Authority, which has spent over four years planning the 40-acre industrial rail park off Whitefish Stage Road, and saying the new centralized site would benefit the entire community. City leaders have said the rail park is pivotal to the Core Area Revitalization Plan, a redevelopment strategy that seeks to replace the rail tracks with a pathway system through downtown and connect four disjointed streets, among other goals.
“This is a great project. I stand behind it 100 percent,” councilor Tim Kluesner said of the rail park. “It will transform this community into a great thing. There are many, many people who are going to benefit from the change.”
“This is the vision for the future that we see for the city of Kalispell,” Mayor Mark Johnson added.
FCEDA, a publically funded not-for-profit organization steered by seven board members, is maintaining its commitment to completing the rail park project in the wake of the letter, which specifically opposed the city’s application of a $10 million federal grant through the TIGER program that would expedite the rail park development.
“We remain optimistic that the U.S. DOT will understand the long term and transformative benefits of this project to the community and will award the TIGER 2015 grant to Kalispell this fall,” Kim Morisaki, business development and special projects manager for FCEDA, said in a statement. “FCEDA remains committed to facilitating this important public/private investment in the Flathead Valley’s infrastructure that will leverage the area’s access to the BNSF rail line resulting in increased private investment, job creation, and allow for further diversification of the regional economy and tax base. We are excited about making transload services available to all businesses in the county who may need occasional rail deliveries and our goal is to attract new manufacturers to the Valley. Rail is an incredibly important asset for this community.”
FCEDA purchased a 40-acre lot off Whitefish Stage Road that can connect to an adjacent spur track running from the mainline in Columbia Falls that is part of a bigger network from Seattle, Wash., to Minneapolis, Minn., and Chicago, Ill. Engineers are in the process of developing a site plan.
If Kalispell receives federal grant funding, the entire rail park and trail project could be completed within three years, planners have said. If not, the industrial complex would surface one business at a time and could take twice as long.
The grants will be announced in the coming weeks.
The city council has pledged $4.5 million in tax incremental finance funds for the revitalization projects. There is also 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.
“One naysayer is not going to slow us down,” councilor Jim Atkinson said during last week’s meeting. “Let’s make that certain among us as a community.”