Not even heavy rain could spoil this celebration.
The excitement and jubilation that began earlier in the week crested Oct. 30 with the official announcement that Kalispell will receive a $10 million federal grant to drive a sprawling redevelopment plan in the heart of the city.
Over 50 people gathered in downtown on a rainy Friday afternoon along the historic railroad tracks, which have long symbolized the identity crisis of the core area.
Nearly 125 years since the tracks were first laid, the city has evolved and diversified into a modern economic center that in many ways stands in stark contrast with its industrial roots in downtown.
For decades, as rail-served businesses along the tracks dwindled from nearly a dozen to only two, city leaders have grappled with forming a modern identity for Kalispell’s core area.
“These dreams take a long time to come to fruition. People have to pass the baton to the next group of excited people,” said Doug Rauthe, who served as Kalispell’s mayor from 1990-98 and helped lead original negotiations for a similar rail park and track removal.
“That’s the beauty of how this all finally came together. It reached a critical mass for people who thought it’s the right thing to get behind.”
By winning a highly competitive U.S. Department of Transportation grant, known as a TIGER grant, Kalispell is now bringing the vision to life. The Glacier Rail Park and Kalispell Core Area Development and Trail project will include replacing the railroad tracks in the coming years with a linear park, reconnecting streets in the area and developing a new centralized industrial rail yard off Whitefish Stage Road, where new and current rail-served businesses can develop.
Kalispell’s project was one of only 39 in the nation to receive a TIGER grant this year.
The redevelopment plan comes with an estimated price tag of $21 million. The city of Kalispell, BNSF Railway and Watco Companies’ Mission Mountain Railroad have pledged $11 million in matching funds, making it one of the region’s largest public-private partnerships.
Construction of the rail park could begin as early as March, according to Flathead County Economic Development Authority, which is spearheading the project. The rail park could be fully built by summer 2017. CHS Montana and all of its local operations could also be fully moved into the new site by then also.
Last week Mayor Mark Johnson met with an owner of Northwest Drywall and Roofing Supply, the second rail-served business, to try and negotiate an agreement for relocation. The business has expressed opposition over the rail park, saying it is “not economically feasible” and would lead to outsized expenses for the family-owned company.
Johnson said he is optimistic that a deal can be reached.
Finishing the rail park would allow for the removal of the tracks and the creation of a trail system, which could be completed by summer 2018, according to FCEDA.
“This offers the opportunity for a lot of people to leave a lasting change in their community, to truly have made a difference in their lifetime in the quality of the community,” Rauthe said. “I’m excited.”
The excitement shined throughout last week’s rainy celebration and the crowd of leaders who gathered to celebrate the dawning of a new era.
The crowd included U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who helped land the highly competitive grant for a community hit hard by the recent recession and “that has incredible potential to move forward in the 21st century and create jobs and create an economy we can all be proud of.”
“This project will only add to the appeal of this area,” Tester said.
U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke praised the city’s vision and leadership and endorsed the plan in Washington, D.C., along with Tester and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.
The undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Peter Rogoff, commended the city’s forward-thinking strategy to address blight in the core area by moving the tracks to where rail-served businesses can grow.
“Having a railroad run through the middle of town basically cuts communities off,” he said. “What does that mean for opportunities to grow? What does that mean for businesses that want to locate here? It’s not sustainable and you were right to step up and put up a lot of local money to fix that problem.”
Mike Tooley, director of the Montana Department of Transportation, was back in town only a few weeks after celebrating the final development of another transformational project, the U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route. Both projects will lead to major benefits to the community’s transportation infrastructure and quality of life, he said.
The crowd included current and former mayors, city officials and community leaders who shaped the ambitious project over the years and helped it endure challenges along the way, including two previous failed attempts at grant funding.
It included business leaders from across the valley who touted the budding opportunities for job growth, especially in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors.
The crowd also included 9-year-old Jack Thompson.
Thompson’s mother, Katharine, played a pivotal part in the relentless pursuit of federal funding as the city’s community development manager. For Friday’s celebration, she made sure that her fourth grade son and other kids were in attendance for a milestone in Kalispell’s history.
“They suffered through it as well, when dinner was late or Mom was late to a volleyball game or has to work over the weekend. I wanted them to be part of this celebration to see what it meant and to see why it matters and why it matters to work hard,” Thompson said.
“My 9-year-old might not appreciate it yet. But I hope someday he’ll know.”
Video created by city of Kalispell