The calendar is rapidly turning toward the Flathead Beacon’s second decade of existence — a milestone we will mark just days after publishing this 10th anniversary issue — and with it comes a groundswell of reflection and the certain promise of dramatic change in the future.
Following a sobering decade that saw an economic downturn against which all future recessions will be judged, we can’t help ourselves from hoping that better days lie ahead.
Will cancer be cured? Will American ingenuity and space exploration become part of our daily lexicon?
We don’t know, and this isn’t meant to be a crystal ball.
Still, thinking back on our own journey through the past 10 years, we can’t help but imagine what changes in this community will drive our coverage through the next decade, the thrust of which will come from the wants, needs and interests of our readers.
A Flathead Beacon cover story published a decade ago, just months into this newspaper’s infancy, was titled “The Future of the Flathead,” and projected that “change will remain the defining characteristic of our region.”
“It will come in expanded city boundaries — large commercial growth to the north and south, residential booms to the south and west. In 3,000-home subdivisions. In a bypass that sends the 110,000 county residents projected to live here around downtown Kalispell. In medical breakthroughs,” the article reports.
Much of the forecast we ran a decade ago has been realized, the visions having been transformed from a glimmer in the valley’s eye to the stuff of brick-and-mortar reality.
Classrooms are swelling with young people while retirees are increasingly migrating here. The region is bristling with commercial activity and residential growth. The population is booming and job growth is substantial.
Left to wonder what the next 10 years will look like, community leaders are already planning for rapid growth that will shape the valley’s future.
Population and Industry
The Flathead Valley remains growing and vibrant, its pristine natural resources, open spaces and quality of life paying off in tangible benefits, with tourism and recreation serving as a powerful economic current driving the region in new directions.
Joe Unterreiner, president and CEO of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, said 60 percent of Flathead County’s workforce is employed by businesses that depend on outdoor recreation.
“A growing portion of our membership supports the recreation and outdoor industry. Glacier Park set a new visitation record this year, a 24-percent increase over last year. It’s a strong and growing part of our economy,” Unterreiner said.
Flathead County continues to grow at a faster rate than all but one other large county in Montana following its success as one of the state’s top economic performers.
Meanwhile, with 2016 estimates putting the population at 98,082, it is poised to break 100,000 this year, based on forecasts from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Montana Department of Commerce. That’s up from the 2010 census count that tallied 90,928 residents, and is consistent with an annual growth rate of 2 percent.
Although the labor force still hasn’t recovered from 2008 levels, Montana as a whole is enjoying sizeable momentum in job growth.
The latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the state led the nation in job growth last month with the largest nonfarm payroll employment increase. With 0.6 percent growth in February, Montana tied with Nebraska and was slightly ahead of New Mexico (0.5 percent), Arkansas (0.5 percent) and Illinois (0.4 percent).
Housing and Infrastructure
Kalispell is geared up for another bustling construction season that could surpass last year’s $129 million worth of new development.
Several large projects are surfacing across town that will keep contractors busy, while many others are in the pipeline. The list includes a new elementary school, continued expansion of health care services, and broad commercial and residential growth, including two large car lots and multiple apartment complexes.
The City of Kalispell issued 173 building permits for new residential projects in 2016 and homebuilders across the valley are reporting heavy activity in 2017.
Residential homes sales and new home development continue to rise while commercial activity is noticeably picking up steam, bolstering the valley’s appeal as a regional trade center.
Whitefish Planning Director Dave Taylor reported a banner year for building construction and planning projects in Whitefish in 2016, which has had a direct impact on the affordable housing crisis.
Total residential development more than doubled in 2016 with 156 new dwellings permitted, compared to 67 in 2015. That counted for $32 million in community investment.
Commercial construction continued to increase with 11 new commercial buildings, up from four in 2015, totaling over $19 million in estimated project costs.
Total valuation of all permits issued last year was around $63 million, Taylor said.
In the past 25 years, Montana has lost two-thirds of its large timber mills as giants like Champion International and Stimson Lumber merged and left the state. Plum Creek Timber Co. was the final national corporation in Montana before it was purchased by Weyerhaeuser Corp. in February 2016.
In the Flathead Valley, F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber is the only family-owned company with its own timberland left in Montana, but the company faces a starkly different future in a state that will never see a new timber mill built.
Montana’s timber industry peaked around 1980, when its mills consumed nearly a billion board-feet of wood a year, but it has fallen to one-third that amount, said Todd Morgan, timber analyst for the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
“In Montana, we have good productive forest land, and a sizable chunk of that happens to be in the national forest system,” Morgan said. “About half the state’s forest inventory is trees between 9 and 17 inches in diameter – an ideal size for current mills. Three-quarters of that grows on federal land.”
Stoltze owns about 40,000 acres, mostly in the Whitefish Range north of Columbia Falls. That property provides about 15 percent of the 60 million board-feet of lumber the mill cuts annually, according to Chuck Roady, vice president at Stoltze, who described tapping into a reliable log supply as the mill’s greatest challenge.
By contrast, Weyerhaeuser Corp. owns 876,000 acres in Montana, running three mills in Flathead County, down from five since it acquired Plum Creek and closed two plants in Columbia Falls.
Further increasing its presence in the local and regional landscapes, Flathead County’s health care sector is undergoing a dramatic expansion with an estimated $147 million of investment in new and upgraded medical facilities over a six-year span.
The health care industry is now the leading employer in Flathead County, accounting for roughly 6,300 jobs, or 16 percent of the total employment. The industry funds roughly $313 million in annual payroll to local workers, 21 percent of the county’s total payroll.
The valley’s robust medical profile, which has experienced sizeable growth in the last decade, is the subject of a new report published by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
Jim Oliverson, vice president of Kalispell Regional Healthcare, noted that while the last decade was characterized by major strides in medical technology, diagnostics, pharmacology, artificial parts, and education, the heath care system has continued to limp along as the financial strain on the medical system and on society continues to grow, while the future of the health care reform law enacted in 2010 remains uncertain.
As the county expects to see its population continue to age, it will experience a significant jump for senior housing and senior needs.
Roughly 16 percent of Flathead County is 65 or older, and by 2030, nearly a quarter of the county population is expected to be older than 65, according to projections.
Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park ushered record crowds through its gates last year, and following current visitation trends over the past few years park managers are planning for uncertainty.
Having welcomed just shy of 3 million visitors to Glacier last year, Superintendent Jeff Mow minces no words in describing the challenges park management faces in the immediate future at the heart of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, where the uptick in visitation has taken a toll on daily operations, particularly during the National Park Service’s centennial year.
In Glacier, it’s become commonplace for the parking lot at Logan Pass to brim full with visitors by 11 a.m. during peak summer months, and a shuttle system meant to diminish vehicle congestion on the Going-to-the-Sun Road has instead merely funneled more visitors onto the scenic corridor.
At Apgar, the largest campground in Glacier with 194 sites, there were only six total days last July and August during which sites were available. The other three large campgrounds did not have a single July day with an open vacancy. August was similar with only two days where vacancies existed in the larger campgrounds.
While the lion’s share of visitors enjoy the scenery along the Going-to-the-Sun Road by vehicle, hiking is the second-most sought out activity, according to a recent report by Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana.
The congestion and wear and tear on Avalanche Lake trail is evidence of the extreme increase in hikers.
According to data from Glacier, in 1988 about 30,000 people hiked the trail during the entire season, compared to 90,000 in 2011. Similarly, the Highline Trail down to the loop on the Sun Road saw about 1,800 hikers in 1988, which increased to more than 40,000 in 2011. Much of the increase on these two trails has been attributed to the shuttle system, which provides access to visitors without a car.
While the shuttle does allow more access, it has inherently created overcrowding and impacted resources.
Overcrowding has also become an issue at Bowman Lake in the more remote northwest corner of the park, where visitors have begun parking vehicles on the side of the narrow, dust-choked dirt road, prompting park officials to propose implementing a “one car in, one car out” rule.
“We saw things last year that shouldn’t happen,” Mow recently told a crowd gathered for a Whitefish Chamber of Commerce luncheon. “There were literally too many people there at one time.”