COLUMBIA FALLS – First, several prominent buildings that sat vacant for years along Nucleus Avenue were purchased in one fell swoop. Then the large empty lot next to Pinewood Park on U.S. Highway 2 was bought outright.
This sudden collection of storefronts and properties caught the community’s attention this past summer, leading to questions and rumors about the plans for these sites.
After a few months, the answers began to surface.
The empty lot near Pinewood Park is in the process of transforming into a 25,000-square-foot, three-story hotel that will include 64 rooms and a 3,000-square-foot convention center. The future Cedar Creek Lodge will be modeled after historic lodges in Glacier National Park and is slated to open next summer, providing Columbia Falls its first prominent hotel.
For the lineup of properties downtown — the former First Citizens Bank, the Davall Building, the Park Merc Building and two vacant lots behind the Merc — there are tentative plans for a pie factory, a candy story, a retail marketplace, an apartment or condominium complex and a steakhouse sports bar.
These may seem like overly ambitious and perhaps quixotic projects, and for most people they probably would be.
But not for Mick Ruis.
Meet the man leading the mission to revitalize the heart of Columbia Falls.
Ruis grew up in a poor family in El Cajon, a relatively small city in San Diego County, California. His father worked construction while his mother stayed home to raise their four kids before becoming a teacher.
“When you grow up with nothing, there are things you appreciate more,” Ruis says. “You don’t take things for granted.”
Young Mick did not excel in the classroom, but he loved wrestling and would earn a trip to the Junior Pan Am Games in Mexico City in high school.
“I love wrestling because the harder you work, the better you can be. There’s no excuses,” he says. “If you really want to get good, you just have to work hard. And I put that into business. Be honest. Be fair. Work hard and you can get somewhere.”
After his senior season of wrestling ended, Ruis dropped out of high school. He found a job at a local scaffolding company, and he used the workmanlike mentality he learned in wrestling to succeed as a construction worker.
After a few years, Ruis moved to the Flathead Valley where his sister was living, and it was the town of Columbia Falls that drew him in during the early 1990s.
“This is the blue-collar heart of Flathead County. These are my people,” he says.
With $6,000 to his name and three children as a divorced single dad, 27-year-old Ruis bought his first piece of property, the Nord Apartments in Columbia Falls. A local banker, Don Bennett, approved Ruis for the loan.
“Don believed in me 20 years ago. He’s that kind of guy,” Ruis says.
Ruis and his kids lived in one of the rooms of the apartments with only a mattress and a fax machine. That’s where he founded his first construction company.
“He’s like a serial entrepreneur,” Bennett says. “He’s always been just moving fast and has always been just a super hard worker. He’s got all kinds of ideas.”
By the late 1990s, Ruis had become a successful contractor who earned a reputation for hard work and integrity. One of his projects included renovating the former Glacier Mountain Shadows Hotel in Columbia Heights.
During this time, he met his future wife, Wendy, who was living in Whitefish. They moved their family to San Diego in 1999 to grow his company in the shoring and scaffolding industry. He traveled across the U.S. building major concrete reservoirs, and within a few years had one of the largest specialized businesses in the nation.
By 2003, Ruis sold the company for $2.5 million and decided to get into horse racing. He bought 50 horses that were bred and trained on his farm while his son, Mick Jr., became a successful jockey.
Five years later, Ruis was drawn back into the scaffolding business and he worked at American Scaffold, a San Diego company with six employees. Within a few years, Ruis became the sole owner and built the company into one the largest scaffolding operations in the U.S. and the largest provider for the U.S. Navy. Ruis now has 250 employees based in five states.
All this time, Montana stuck in Mick and Wendy’s minds. They hoped to return some day, and two years ago, the opportunity presented itself.
They bought a 148-acre piece of property outside Columbia Falls and settled in.
Of course, Ruis was not satisfied with kicking up his heels and simply enjoying the view.
“I like being busy,” he says. “I said, ‘If I’m going to stay here and enjoy it, I’m going to stay busy.’”
Returning to Columbia Falls, Ruis found a community that was hit hard by the economic recession and had been struggling with high unemployment for years.
The city seemed poised to take significant steps in development and growth as the economy strengthened and more people found jobs, but it has been a slow process.
In the last two years, more than 100 homes were built in the city, according to City Manager Susan Nicosia. This year, there were 57 building permits for $6.81 million in residential value and $3.42 million in commercial value. Two years ago, the residential value was barely $2.64 million and commercial was $237,380, according to city data.
“This city has so much potential,” Ruis says.
City leaders have long discussed the need for a hotel that could anchor the heart of the city and allow for sports tournaments and other events to be held here.
So Ruis bought an empty lot and is building a massive hotel.
“We always needed a hotel here. And I have the resources to be able to do it and we want to live here,” he says.
Hoping to spur growth downtown, Ruis bought almost every empty storefront on Nucleus Avenue.
“I want to bring people to Columbia Falls,” he says. “I want to bring everybody down to Nucleus Avenue.”
Others appear to be following Ruis’ lead. A new bakery and bike shop is poised to open soon along the resurgent Nucleus Avenue, as well as a new pizza shop.
For downtown, he hopes to help create a welcoming hub for all demographics of people, young and old. Last weekend he took some friends from Columbia Falls to San Diego to show them a pie factory in the town he grew up in. The business started as a small shop and is now a regional distributor of delicacy pies.
That’s what he wants to create here.
“It will be called Columbia Falls Pie Factory, because I want people across the country to eat a pie and say, ‘This is from Columbia Falls, Montana,’” he says.
He also has plans to open a steakhouse and sports bar to help cultivate a nightlife. Then there is the plan for an apartment or condominium complex that could allow older folks to live downtown.
His plan for the former First Citizens Bank was put on hold after Melby’s Home Interiors burned down in September on U.S. Highway 2. After the sudden fire displaced the business, Ruis got in touch with the owner, Steve Melby, and offered the old bank, where Melby’s is now back in business.
“He welcomed us in and said we could stay here as long as we need to,” Steve Melby says.
“Mick is just a first-class person. He’s really, really got Columbia Falls’ best interests at heart. If the things he’s doing work, it will be tremendous for Columbia Falls and really bring business back to this town.”
Indeed, Ruis has an ambitious vision for the “Gateway to Glacier.”
“Nucleus Avenue is something that everybody here has been trying to get invigorated for decades. I think with some of the ideas that Mick has, it will really help do that,” Bennett, president of Freedom Bank, says.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Mick can do it. I don’t know of a guy who works harder and moves faster than Mick. He’s not just blowing smoke. He’s the real deal.”
Ruis, 54, says he hopes he inspires others. He hopes his story proves that you can dream big and work hard enough to make it reality.
Not bad for a high-school dropout raised in a poor family.
“This town struggled for a long time, but there are some bright things going on,” he says.
“It’s a lot of weight on your shoulders. But I’m going to do it.”