A noticeable buzz is surrounding this year’s municipal election in Columbia Falls, where optimism is springing forth and economic development is gaining momentum.
All five candidates running for city council are echoing excitement for the community, reflecting the progress of a town that has struggled with high unemployment and few candidates in years past.
“I think ultimately the council that’s been in place has done a great job. I wouldn’t take anything away from them,” John Piper, one of this year’s candidates, said. “I want that to continue, to be fiscally responsible and try to hold that line on taxes so we can afford to live here.”
“It’s an exciting time in Columbia Falls,” incumbent Doug Karper said. “For 30 years we’ve been trying to get to the point where I think we are now.”
Election day is Nov. 3 and absentee ballots are available Oct. 14. Voting will be conducted at City Hall, 130 Sixth St. W.
This year’s election features two incumbents running for re-election — Karper and Darin Fisher— and three newcomers vying for their first four-year terms: Piper; Frederick “Erick” Robbins; and Tyler Lee Furry.
Shawn Bates filed to run for the council but has withdrawn his candidacy after being hired by the city’s public works department.
Incumbent Julie Plevel is not running for re-election, guaranteeing at least one new member will join the seven-member council, which features six councilors and the mayor.
A developer has proposed a new hotel near Pinewood Park, which could be an economic catalyst for the city in many ways, including further establishing Columbia Falls as a strong tourism destination and the Gateway to Glacier. Other plans are surfacing for new commercial businesses in downtown, including a restaurant. The city is also considering the creation of an economic development plan, called a TEDD, for the industrial park near Railroad Street. The plan could include establishing a tax increment finance district, which would spur redevelopment opportunities. There are already initial plans for SmartLam, a cross laminated timber company, to build a massive manufacturing facility in the industrial park that could become the largest in the world.
Karper, a maintenance supervisor with the Columbia Falls school district, is a longtime councilor who first began serving in the early 1990s.
“I still have some passion for the city and what’s going on with this urban renewal,” he said. “I would just like to be a part of that going forward.”
Karper credited the council for maintaining the town’s identity as a business friendly community and keeping infrastructure from falling apart.
If re-elected, he said he would stay focused on being proactive in making sure the former Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant is properly cleaned up.
Fisher echoed similar plans and enthusiasm. He said he was proud of his first term serving on the council and that he wants to stay involved in the town’s progress.
“We’ve got a great city council right now and a great city manager,” he said. “I think that Columbia Falls is going good places and I want to keep my fingers in that and help direct that.”
Fisher, a trails manager for the U.S. Forest Service and a budding business owner who is opening a new brewery on U.S. Highway 2 with his wife, Carla, said the cleanup of CFAC is vital to the town and that he hopes to help furnish Columbia Falls’ redevelopment efforts.
Robbins, a real estate agent who has lived in Columbia Falls for nearly 12 years, previously served on the Columbia Falls City-County Planning Board and felt inspired to get involved again with local government.
“It’s a prime opportunity to help guide our town as we go through what I anticipate is a growth phase,” he said.
He said his top priorities would be the cleanup of CFAC, as well as helping economic development continue in a responsible manner.
“The city has made a name for itself as being business friendly. I’d like to see that trend continue but obviously some oversight is needed,” Robbins said.
Furry, a 29-year-old web designer and developer who has lived in Columbia Falls for nearly three years, said he was inspired to join the race to “show that young people in our community could step up and try to help out.”
Describing himself as Libertarian, he said protecting against unwarranted government overreach is important. He said the city should try and learn from Libby’s Superfund cleanup when addressing CFAC’s future. He also said a priority of his would be maintaining Columbia Falls’ identity as a town with strong industry while developing a healthy tourist economy.
“I want to help keep Columbia Falls a cool Montana town where we can still have an industry and service-based economy and people can afford to live here,” he said.
Piper, a supervisor at the Montana Veterans Home, said he ran when there appeared to be a shortage of candidates, but remains committed to the race.
A lifelong Columbia Falls resident, he said it is important to keep the city’s historic industries intact and to maintain affordable housing. Revitalizing downtown is important, he said, along with cleaning up CFAC.
“I don’t have a specific agenda. I think just from my longevity in the community, I think I’d be a good liaison between the city and the general public,” he said.
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