A New Economic Landscape

Local leaders in economic development discuss the Flathead’s potential a decade out of the recession

By Molly Priddy
Liz Marchi, Colleen Unterreiner, Katharine King, Kim Morisaki and Tagen Vine spoke on a panel about economic development during the Leadership Montana conference at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell on Sept. 13, 2018. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

It’s been a decade since the Great Recession first took hold of America, eventually making its way to the Flathead Valley where it wreaked havoc on the housing and construction industries, along with manufacturing and other sectors.

The economy was shaken, and when the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company and Weyerhaeuser mills shut down, many people were suddenly out of work without skills to find a comparable or better job.

They were dark days for many folks in the Flathead, but during the toughest times, there was work underway preparing for a different, productive future. This groundwork laid during the recession, which is growing into fruition now, was the topic of discussion among economic development leaders on a panel at Leadership Montana’s annual convention, The Confluence, last week.

The three-day event featured various panels, including a discussion reflecting on economic development in the Flathead in the last decade.

The panel included Colleen Unterreiner, the executive director of institutional advancement and the Foundation for Flathead Valley Community College; Katharine King, the assistant director of community and economic development with the city of Kalispell; Kim Moriasaki, director of marketing and business development at Montana West Economic Development; and Tagen Vine, president of the Kalispell Regional Healthcare Foundation. Polson-based angel fund founder Liz Marchi moderated the panel.

Reflecting on the last 10 years, panel members said the projects and organizations that were forward thinking during the hard times are the ones blossoming now.

King, who works in economic development in Kalispell, said the Kalispell Core Revitalization Plan took advantage of the downturn to get moving on the mid-city walking and biking trail. They knew it would be a major project, to rip out the railway and put in a path after building a rail park elsewhere to continue serving the businesses on the line, but persistence paid off.

Kalispell got a $10 million federal grant toward the project, along with $11 million in community funding and found a nearby gravel pit, where construction on the new Rail Park is wrapping up soon, King said. The trail should be under construction by 2020, 12 years after the recession started.

“That trail isn’t just about a trail,” King said. “It’s about the revitalization of this entire community.”

SunRift Beer Company is an example of how the trail will affect the city’s core, King said, because the brewery picked its location near the Kalispell Center Mall to take advantage of the future walking path.

King said the forward thinking about the project made it one that not only invites development, but it leverages that development into further growth.

Vine, with the KRH Foundation, said the hospital pursued construction projects during the downturn because the cost of materials was down and contractors were out of work. The result was the $42 million surgical services tower. The hospital also pursued other construction projects, including the Montana Children’s Medical Center.

The panelists noted how nimble FVCC was during the heart of the recession, building courses and certification programs to retrain an out-of-work workforce along with a new generation of workers. These courses included many in the medical field as needed at the hospital, as well as manufacturing courses other local businesses needed. Unterreiner said solid leadership at the college has kept it on course, and it continues to expand.

Morisaki with MWED said infrastructure and access would become more important in the future as the community continues to develop.

“I see our future completely dependent on our connectivity,” she said.

The panel said the valley is poised for continued economic growth, largely due to government and organizations hearing from the public and going to work on their behalf.

“The economic downturn (led us) to regroup and look at what needed changing,” King said.