The Year in Business

A roundup of the top business stories in Northwest Montana in 2017

By Molly Priddy
Construction of the Glacier Town Center on the north end of Kalispell on June 22, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Real Estate Rebounds, Prices Increase

Recovery from the Great Recession continues in the Flathead Valley’s real estate market, with sales and prices continuing to increase.

The first half of 2017 saw the most residential sales in the market since the boom times of the early 2000s, with the median price settling in at $269,000. By the time November ended, Flathead County had 1,751 residential sales, the highest number that has ever occurred in the first 11 months of a year, crushing the previous high of 1,668 in 2006.

By the end of the first 10 months of the year, the median sales price in Flathead County was $275,000, nearly 8 percent higher than the same time period in 2016.

Development Continues to Boom, Affordable Housing Needed

Affordable housing in Flathead County was a big conversation in 2017, with hundreds of proposed apartments in various complexes around the valley as development continues to boom.

The 43-acre, $11 million Glacier Rail Park broke ground in Kalispell in August, a major step in developing the city’s core area.

Whitefish adopted an affordable housing plan to help address the need, and several remodeling projects took place or are in the works in existing affordable housing facilities.

The commercial development north of Kalispell continued to add retail space, with the announcements of two new restaurants, an REI, the opening of HomeGoods, and more.

U.S. Optics, a well-known high-end firearms optics business, relocated to Kalispell from California this year.

Columbia Falls experienced considerable development this year, thanks in large part to a new economic renaissance in the city and Mick Ruis, a serial investor who has pumped more than $15 million into new projects there in the last two years.

Tourism, Outdoors as Economic Heavy Hitters

Glacier National Park had another record-setting year for visitation, attracting more than 3 million people before 2017 had ended.

An estimated 12 million tourists spent $3.16 billion across Montana in 2016, and Flathead County earned the second-highest amount of that spending, coming in at $506 million. Only Gallatin County attracted more spending, with $677 million. Visitor spending across the state supported nearly 34,700 jobs.

Northwest Montana as a region attracted 32 percent of all nonresident dollars, or about $1 billion in direct spending.

The outdoor industry emerged as one of the state’s top economic engines, outpacing nearly all other economic sectors except for real estate and government. Users of the Whitefish Trail system contribute about $6.1 million annually, according to a yearlong study.

Hiring Woes Continue to Plague Flathead County

There were still almost 1,000 job openings in Flathead County in the fall, despite the summer seasonal hiring frenzy.

Coupled with a 3.9 percent unemployment rate in August – both in Flathead County and statewide –many employers had trouble filling open jobs even after the summer seasonal slowdown.

Local construction companies say their core crews of skilled workers tend to stay intact, but the less-skilled positions for general labor — meaning jobs such as carpenter’s assistants or those handling materials or cleanup — are almost impossible to fill.

The health care industry remains a bright stalwart in the local economy, accounting for roughly 6,300 jobs and 21 percent of the county’s total payroll. The industry is expected to grow faster than the national average over the next 10 years.

U.S. Slaps Tariffs on Canadian Lumber

The saga over softwood lumber markets in Canada and the United States continued in 2017, with the announcement that the U.S. would impose tariffs on Canadian lumber after settlement talks between the countries failed.

Canadian trade authorities decried the move as “unfair, unwarranted and deeply troubling” in a statement.

Softwood lumber has been the subject of an enduring trade dispute between the two countries, and the most recent Softwood Lumber Agreement (SLA) lapsed last November after 10 years.

SmartLam’s Meteoric Rise

SmartLam, a rapidly growing local manufacturer of cross-laminated timber, or CLT, will expand 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. in Columbia Falls.

Roughly $15 million worth of new “state-of-the-art” equipment will be installed in the facility as SmartLam takes a quantum leap in production, quadrupling from 20,000 cubic meters annually to more than 80,000. After completing the relocation, estimated by the end of 2019, SmartLam will be one of the largest CLT manufacturing operations in the world.

At its new headquarters, the company will triple its staffing, from 35 employees to more than 100 by the end of 2019.

Mall Expansion Projects Gain Momentum

Malls across the country are closing or falling into disrepair, but the Kalispell Center Mall continues to defy those trends, adding at least 40,000 square feet to the local Herberger’s store.

The mall also plans to expand into several acres just north of the mall across the train tracks that run through downtown, including a space for the new SunRift Beer Company. This development mirrors the Kalispell Core Area Revitalization Plan’s vision of improved walkability and connectivity between neighborhoods and city streets — once the railroad tracks are pulled up, a walking path will go in.

Kalispell North Town Center Emerges

A nine-phase subdivision sprouted up north of Kalispell this year, starting out with developing 43 acres of commercial lots and 14 acres of multi-family residential living.

Kalispell Ford relocated there in an $8.4 million dealership with 54,000 square feet and the ability to accommodate 300 vehicles on the lot.

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.

China Opens Its Markets to Montana Beef

After 13 years of banning U.S. beef, China reopened its markets to the red meat, providing what American leaders are calling an important opportunity for the cattle industry, especially in Montana, where cows outnumber humans two to one.

China’s largest online retailer has agreed to buy $200 million worth of Montana beef over the next three years — representing as many as 90,000 head of cattle — and potentially invest $100 million more in a new slaughterhouse in the state under the terms of a trade deal.

Without the feeding or processing infrastructure able to handle such capacity, the calves that would sell overseas as Montana beef are instead products of the Midwest by the time they get there.

Flathead County Regulates Short-Term Rentals

The Flathead County Commission joined the county’s municipalities in regulating short-term rentals this year when it approved new regulations for such rentals in zoned areas of the county, affecting homeowners who were operating through websites such as Airbnb and VRBO.

The approved text amendment allows for stays shorter than 30 days in zones where single-family dwelling units are allowed. The regulations require property owners to obtain an administrative conditional-use permit from the Flathead County Planning and Zoning Department, as well as a Public Accommodation License from the state, which is administered through the Flathead City-County Health Department.

Airport Sees Growth, Increased Passenger Totals

Northwest Montana’s primary airport was poised for another year of growth in 2017, with big shoes to fill from 2016’s passenger totals. In April, the airport saw more than a 6 percent increase in passenger departures over the previous year.

Passenger traffic was up 10.5 percent through September and is poised to surpass 500,000 for the entire year for the first time in history.

The local airport along U.S. Highway 2 welcomed nearly 113,000 passengers between June and September, a 13.9 percent increase over a year ago. The four-month total made it the busiest summer on record for GPIA.

United Airlines announced a direct flight from Kalispell to Los Angeles starting in 2018, and U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester announced $5,024,695.00 in critical funding for four Montana airports, including $2 million for GPIA.

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