Historic. Transformative. A watershed moment for Kalispell.
City and community leaders are hailing the Monday morning announcement by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., that Kalispell will receive a $10 million federal transportation grant to propel a massive economic development project in the core area.
Tester said the city was successful in its bid for a highly competitive U.S. Department of Transportation grant known as a TIGER grant.
City leaders say the grant will be a catalyst for an industrial rail park and the Kalispell Core Area Revitalization Plan, a sprawling strategy crafted in 2010 with community input that seeks to remove the railroad tracks in downtown, develop a pathway system and reconnect disjointed streets, among other redevelopment goals.
“This transformative project will create jobs, open up incredible opportunities for businesses, and diversify the economy of northwest Montana,” said Tester, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Today’s announcement is the result of years of hard work from folks on the ground in Kalispell. As this project moves forward I will continue to work with local leaders and businesses to help create investment opportunities for folks in the Flathead.”
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., also released a congratulatory message, saying the “long-overdue grant is great news for the city of Kalispell and will help reinvigorate downtown and bring more good paying jobs to the area.”
U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., echoed Daines and Tester in congratulating Kalispell.
“I grew up around the rail line, this project has been close to me and the entire Flathead for a long time,” said Zinke, a Whitefish native. “The revitalization of the Glacier Rail Park will provide incredible benefits to the community, and I’m pleased Senators Tester and Daines recognized the importance of this project to the local, state and national economies. I look forward to following the project’s progress in the coming years.”
After falling short the previous two years, Kalispell landed the grant using a concerted effort that included sending city councilors and staff to Washington, D.C. to meet with federal officials and lawmakers. Flathead County Economic Development Authority, which is spearheading the rail park construction, worked with city staff to fill out an application that explained the potential significance of the $22 million core area plan.
“This is an historic day for Kalispell. (The TIGER grant is) going to be the driver for some major changes for this city,” Kim Morisaki, FCEDA project manager, said. “This is a reward for the city of Kalispell’s vision and planning.”
The news fueled similar excitement throughout City Hall.
“This could be potentially a watershed moment in Kalispell’s history,” City Manager Doug Russell said. “This is huge for Kalispell. It’s very exciting to see how this is going to impact Kalispell for the long term.”
Mayor Mark Johnson, who has been actively involved in the planning process as a FCEDA board member, received the news from Tester early Monday.
“It’s an extremely humbling experience to know that you’ve had a small part to play in something that will be so major for this community for generations to come,” Johnson said.
“When you read the history books of important moments in time, 50 years from now you will read about the TIGER grant in Kalispell and see all the fruits of that effort.”
Receiving the grant puts the development of the rail park off Whitefish Stage on a fast track, with construction possibly beginning this fall or early next spring, Morisaki said.
It also is likely to create a ripple effect throughout the private sector.
CHS Kalispell is awaiting the construction of infrastructure in the rail park so that it can move its operations, including the large grain elevator on Center Street, to the new site. Other new rail-served businesses will also be able to move into the 40-acre site.
The Kalispell Center Mall has expressed plans to redevelop its property in concert with the core area plan.
Project leaders from CTA Architects Engineers who helped craft the core area plan envision a wide range of urban renewal possibilities, including retail, residential and entertainment sites replacing the current “disorganized development” and “chaos” of the industrial core.
The project has enjoyed widespread support, although one rail-served business, Northwest Drywall and Roofing Supply, sent a letter of opposition to the US DOT saying the rail park is “not economically feasible” and would lead to outsized expenses for the family-owned company, which is one of two rail users in downtown along with CHS.
Following the letter, community leaders rallied support around the application, saying that the benefits of the core area plan would be widespread. It gained support from Tester, Daines and Zinke, who all separately recommended DOT officials award Kalispell the grant.
The city and FCEDA must spend the grant funds within five years. The city of Kalispell and FCEDA are joined by BNSF Railway and Watco Companies’ Mission Mountain Railroad in providing $11 million in matching funds to develop the new rail park, making it one of the region’s largest public-private partnerships, Tester said.
“We want to do it right,” Johnson said. “We spent a lot of time planning it. We need to make sure we take all the right steps moving forward and do it wisely over the next five years to get the best bang for the buck.”