On 500 acres of sprawling flatland, former wheat fields once considered the northern outskirts of Kalispell, a nine-phase subdivision dubbed “Montana’s newest commercial center” is sprouting up this summer.
Meet the Kalispell North Town Center, the latest large-scale harbinger of growth in the Flathead Valley.
Developers are already moving dirt for the first phase, a future landscaped complex with 43 acres of commercial lots and 14 acres of multi-family residential. Leading the way is Valley Ford, which is constructing its new $8.4 million dealership at the corner where U.S. Highway 93 will meet Rose Crossing after that road’s expansion is completed. Realtors are shopping six other lots ranging in size from 1.3 acres to 7.4 acres, which could accommodate a variety of retail, commercial and office space, as well as a residential lot.
As part of the development, four streets are being constructed, most prominently Rose Crossing, which is being extended west from Whitefish Stage to U.S. 93 and will feature a new traffic signal on the highway. There will also be a 2.1-acre open space and 1-acre park. A 100-foot-wide landscaped buffer will also be built along U.S. 93 North, while a 2.1-acre buffer will be constructed between the subdivision and adjacent National Guard Armory.
Future phases, which will take years to complete, will include a similar proposed mix of commercial and residential developments within the subdivision’s 485-acre footprint. It could even accommodate a future school, an idea that was floated during last year’s school district long-range planning meetings but eventually put on hold by the Kalispell Public Schools’ board of trustees.
The massive development is the latest example of Kalispell’s rising role as a regional trade center amid ballooning population. Since 2010, the city has grown by more than 2,709 people, a 13.5 percent increase, which is the second highest rate in Montana among the state’s biggest cities in that timeframe.
The valley as a whole is following a similar trajectory. From 2015 to 2016, the population in Flathead County grew by roughly 2,000 people, the largest year-to-year increase in a decade and one of the biggest gains in Montana. At that pace, Flathead County is poised to reach 100,000 residents for the first time this summer.
Across the highway from the Kalispell North Town Center, another large subdivision called Stillwater Bend is preparing to break ground on 55.9 acres of commercial and residential development described by planners as “a community within a community.” Elsewhere along the highway, there are more plans for mixed-use development, including commercial and residential around Majestic Valley Arena and Raceway Park.
Only 10 years ago, when the north side of Kalispell essentially ended at Four Mile Drive and Flathead Valley Community College, the prospect of this amount of growth unnerved many residents. The proposal of a previous iteration of the Kalispell North Town Center, known as the Glacier Town Center, foreshadowed the coming growth and spurred heavy public outcry at the time.
“When we first looked at the growth happening at the north end of Kalispell, people feared that it would do damage to the interior heart of Kalispell, the downtown district,” former Mayor Pam Carbonari recalled.
“When we were first looking at that whole area, we worried about the scenic highway corridor and that we would end up with another Highway 2 with growth scattered throughout the whole area.”
City council meetings devoted to updating the growth policy and addressing developments such as the original town center spanned several hours and attracted hundreds of public comments. Debate raged while development boomed.
Reflecting on the changes since then, Carbonari says the city’s building standards, such as landscaping, sidewalk and road requirements, prevented disorderly development.
“I think that planning was done well,” she said. “The entrances into Hutton Ranch and other developments up there are limited, and that’s the standard now that will continue into the north town center.”
“I think we’ve learned from the developments that have happened,” she added. “I think we are in a situation where downtown is still thriving and it’s the heart of the Flathead Valley in my estimation.”