Construction Deja Vu

Residential projects, some approved before the recession, are finally breaking ground

By Kellyn Brown

When the Beacon first opened up shop here more than a decade ago, one of our focuses in the newsroom from the outset was on growth and development. It was 2007, the valley was booming, and much of the new home construction was located in the same place it is now — on the west side of Kalispell.

Then it stopped. Abruptly.

Fueled by a subprime mortgage crisis coupled with fast-and-loose lending, a nationwide housing bubble burst and subsequently hammered the Northwest Montana economy. Real estate prices sank and construction ground to a halt.

The before-and-after pictures painted during our first few years of publication were striking: before the Great Recession upended a rapidly growing region, and after, when the only thing growing was the jobless rate.

The before … August 2007 Beacon: “Starling Sails Through.”

“Kalispell City Council approved Monday night the first phase of the Starling subdivision project, a development over a square mile that will roughly equal the downtown area of the city over the next 20 years.”

And the after … March 2009 Beacon: “Slump Hammers Independent Contractors on Two Fronts.”

“Hundreds of independent contractors — carpenters, plumbers, roofers, and the like — have been left without work. And, because they don’t pay into the program, they are also without any unemployment benefits.”

The before … October 2008 Beacon: “Kalispell’s Southern End: The Next Boomtown?”

And the after … June 2010 Beacon: “Led by Silverbrook, Construction Has a Pulse.”

To be sure, this building boom is far different than the last. Driven more by demand and population growth and less by speculation and greed, it’s hard to imagine history repeating itself in regard to another housing crisis. The market, of course, could soften, but first contractors have to meet the demand for new housing units, which hasn’t happened yet.

So here we are, 10 years later, again looking toward the west side of Kalispell. Except this time there is a bypass, and a major wastewater project being built to support a population bigger than many Montana towns.

When the West Side Interceptor, the largest public works project in Kalispell since 2009, is completed, it will be able to support 17,600 households and 44,195 people. For some perspective, the city’s population as of July 1, 2017, was just 23,212, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

And even before the sewer is done, the area near the bypass is undergoing rapid growth as the city continues to push west.

In June 2015, when it became clear the recession was in the rearview mirror, we published a story titled, “A Better Boom.” It read, in part: “A decade after the Flathead Valley’s bustling building boom, contractors and planners who endured the crash welcome a more sustainable uptick.”

In the three years since, the pace of growth and development has only increased. Residential projects, some approved before the recession, are finally breaking ground. It’s a startling turnaround for a city and region that for years was dogged by high unemployment rates and stagnant population. Now, that next boomtown is beginning to take shape — it just took a few years longer than expected.

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