Last week, an orange locomotive and four freight cars filled to the brim with grain rumbled through downtown Kalispell. Trains have been a familiar sight in Kalispell ever since the Great Northern Railway arrived in town 126 years ago, on Jan. 2, 1892.
But sometime in the next year, that will all change. Construction of the new Glacier Rail Park east of town is continuing at a feverish pace. If everything goes according to plan, the rail park along Whitefish Stage Road will open in late 2018 and trains will no longer rumble across U.S. Highway 93.
Next summer, CHS Kalispell and Northwest Drywall, the last two businesses near downtown Kalispell that rely on the rails, are expected to break ground on new facilities at the rail park. When those two businesses move, the rails – built by Great Northern, owned by BNSF Railway and currently used by Watco Companies’ Mission Mountain Railroad – will be ripped up, possibly as early as 2019. The rails will be replaced with a trail connecting Woodland Park with the west side of town and officials hope the path will spur development on about 40 acres of underutilized land.
“This project is on track,” said Kalispell Planning and Building Director Tom Jentz. “This will be a truly transformative project.”
“We’re not just talking about an 8-foot-wide path through town, we’re talking about the construction of a promenade that will become a significant feature of this community,” Jentz said.
LHC, Inc. was selected in June 2017 to construct the $11.2 million, 43-acre Glacier Rail Park. The rail-served industrial park will feature space for numerous businesses as well as what’s called in the railroad industry as a “team track,” which is a space that multiple businesses can use to load and unload freight cars. LHC’s Amy Williams said construction has continued through the winter. In recent months, new waterlines have been installed, roads have been constructed and a detention pond for wastewater is on the docket. LHC will also begin construction of the roadbed that will be the platform for a subcontractor to construct railroad tracks that will connect with the line from Columbia Falls.
During the construction, some roads around the site have been closed, including sections of Oregon Lane, Flathead Drive and Montclair Drive. The closure is expected to last until at least until June.
While construction crews keep busy at the rail park, the city of Kalispell is getting ready to work with the public and local property owners to develop the freed-up space downtown. Jentz said the city would host a number of public meetings and open houses in 2018 to gather public input on what the core area should look like. Already a number of ideas have surfaced, including a new library, an arts center, storefronts and apartments.
“We want to get the public involved with this development,” Jentz said.
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