Economic Excitement Rises in Columbia Falls

Following the lead of investor Mick Ruis, local businesses help fuel revitalization across town

By Dillon Tabish
O’Brien Byrd, the owner of O’Brien’s Liquor and Wine and the JIM fitness center, gives a tour of downtown Columbia Falls during an event on Oct. 26, 2017 hosted by Montana West Economic Development showcasing the new economic activity sweeping across town. Dillon Tabish | Flathead Beacon

COLUMBIA FALLS — The prominent hotel and convention center.

The lineup of renovated and emerging storefronts and apartment buildings populating almost half of Nucleus Avenue.

Even the aerial photo of the “Gateway to Glacier” placed front and center on the city government’s website.

All courtesy of Mick Ruis.

It’s impossible to walk through Columbia Falls these days and miss the influence of its benevolent serial investor.

Ruis has invested more than $15 million in local redevelopment projects in the last two years.

First and foremost, Ruis built the $10 million Cedar Creek Lodge, which he then sold to Xanterra Parks and Resorts for the same total price it cost to build.

Along the downtown thoroughfare of Nucleus Avenue, Ruis bought up empty lots and blighted buildings. He constructed the three-story retail and apartment building next door to the Columbia Bar, and it’s now open alongside the former antique store that Ruis renovated and leases to O’Brien Byrd’s fitness and exercise center, named JIM.

Across the street, Hellroaring Crossfit is moving into another of Ruis’ revitalized properties, the former First Citizens Bank. Nearby, the 18-unit apartment complex known as Glacier Courtyards has broken ground and is surfacing in place of the former DaVall Building.

Down the street, local restaurateur Pat Carloss has bought the former Bandit Bar and Saloon from Ruis and is retrofitting it into a new family-friendly bar and grill slated to open in spring.

“Three years ago it was doom and gloom,” Byrd said. “Now there’s so much going on.”

Byrd, a Columbia Falls native who owns O’Brien’s Liquor and Wine and The Coop, which now hosts weekly community markets in summertime along U.S. Highway 2, said a noticeable optimism has sprung up throughout town, driven by entrepreneurial spirit and excitement.

It also helps to have someone like Ruis spearheading instrumental investments.

“The guy is moving and shaking,” Byrd said of Ruis. “His heart is in the right place, and he has the money to back these projects for our town.”

Ruis, a high school dropout who became a millionaire in the scaffolding industry and is now a part-time resident in the valley, told the Beacon that he and his wife, Wendy, have been happy to help the town, whether it’s creating new economic opportunities or creating new places for people to live downtown.

“All of my investments in Columbia Falls are about the people and creating jobs,” he said. “We just feel fortunate to be able to help the town we live in and love so much.”

Indeed, Ruis has been a major community catalyst and set the stage for several upstart businesses of all types that have followed suit as Columbia Falls enjoys growing economic liveliness.

Downtown is lined with an assortment of new family-owned businesses that have recently popped up: Over the Mountain bike shop, North Fork Pizza, Uptown Hearth, Azul Coffee Bar, Glacier Nutritionist, Berube Physical Therapy, Odd Fellow Coffee House, Yoga Hive. A traditional mainstay, Los Caporales, has new owners and is poised for a sizeable remodel and rebranding.

To help maintain the momentum, the city of Columbia Falls is investing in streetlights through downtown, while the Columbia Falls Community Foundation is building a prominent monolith that will sit at the corner of U.S. Highway 2 near the entrance to the heart of town, declaring “Adventure Lives Here.”

The corridor of U.S. 2 has seen similar changes with a brewery — Backslope Brewing — and numerous other dining options emerging in recent years, such as MUDMAN. Whitefish Credit Union has broken ground on a large new building as well.

“There are so many great things happening here,” Jerry Meerkatz, president and CEO of Montana West Economic Development, said at an event hosted by MWED this week showcasing all the activity in Columbia Falls.

The MWED event also highlighted the significant expansion of SmartLam Technologies Group, a rapidly growing local manufacturer of cross-laminated timber, or CLT, that is moving from its 40,000-square-foot facility behind Western Building Center to the 140,000-square-foot lumber mill building formerly owned by Plum Creek Timber Co. and then Weyerhaeuser Co.

Casey Malmquist, president and general manager of SmartLam, told the group of more than 30 people that the company’s $20 million investment in the new expanded facility would represent a significant opportunity for local job growth. The company plans to triple its staffing, from 35 employees to more than 100 by the end of 2019.

The future is even brighter. Malmquist said the demand for CLT is growing significantly as builders increasingly realize the many benefits of developing commercial and residential structures with CLT and the environmental benefits of reducing the dependence on steel and concrete come into clearer focus.

“I’m really excited about our community,” Malmquist said.

SmartLam is leasing a 10-acre section of the former Weyerhaeuser property for its new headquarters and plant. The remaining 30 acres, featuring seven or more rail-served industrial plots, are welcoming interest from additional large business tenants.

The investment group that purchased the property is fittingly called Columbia Rising. And one of its chief backers?

Who else but Ruis.

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