County Eyes Weyerhaeuser Land, Building for Possible Jail

Public hearings will be scheduled over the next 60 days to gather input on proposed purchase

By Justin Franz
The Cedar Palace in Columbia Falls on Feb. 12, 2016. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead County Commission is looking at building a new jail in Columbia Falls after it unanimously approved the purchase of a large office building and nearly 24 acres of open land from Weyerhaeuser.

The approval of a purchase and sale agreement, which the commission decided on Aug. 31, kicks off a 60-day public comment period when Flathead County will gather input on a proposal to build a new adult detention center and sheriff’s office on the north end of the valley. At the end of the scoping period, the commission will make a final decision on the proposed purchase.

No public meetings have been scheduled yet.

The proposed purchase would include the 35,000-square-foot Cedar Palace office building, a 5,600-square-foot data center building and 23.87 acres of light industrial land on the northwest side of Columbia Falls. The commission has agreed to a purchase price of $2.6 million.

The property was listed for sale earlier this year. The main office, known as the Cedar Palace, was built in 1982 and was Plum Creek’s former headquarters before the company merged with Weyerhaeuser in early 2016. The office closed in December 2016, and roughly 100 employees were laid off as part of Weyerhaeuser’s local downsizing.

“It’s a good piece of property and there is plenty of room for expansion there,” Sheriff Chuck Curry said of potentially building a new jail in Columbia Falls.

The current jail near downtown Kalispell was built in the 1980s to hold about 60 inmates, but in recent years it’s regularly held more than 100, much more than it can handle. The facility was expanded earlier this year to hold up to 164 inmates but Curry has said in the past that it is only a temporary fix.

County administrator Mike Pence said the Weyerhaeuser land was attractive for several reasons, including its large amount of acreage that could accommodate present and future needs.

Pence said the county has struggled to find property that is affordable and suitable for a potential jail, and the Columbia Falls site would address those needs, including attached utilities.

In 2015, the county had tentative plans to purchase the former WalMart building on U.S. 2 in Evergreen for $2.8 million, but the deal fell apart at the last minute after another, higher bidder emerged.

Pence said the Columbia Falls site could allow for a permanent, long-term fix.

“We’ve been deferring it up to this point,” he said.

If the purchase were approved, the county would prepare to ask voters to approve a bond request to build the new detention center. Voters would also have to approve a mill levy increase to cover operations at the new, expanded facility.

“If we’re going to double the size of the detention center, operational costs will be significantly more than they are today,” Pence said.

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