Opinion

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Like I Was Saying

Another City Begins to Boom

Columbia Falls is undergoing a renaissance

Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest population estimates show that cities are growing in nearly every corner of Northwest Montana. That wasn’t always the case. Following the Great Recession, some local cities recovered faster than others. There were clear winners and losers.

That’s harder to parse in the data the bureau released late last month. While recent growth trends continue for places like Kalispell and Whitefish, which are estimated to have added 714 and 259 people respectively between 2017 and 2018, others are catching up, specifically Columbia Falls.

For several years following the economic downturn, the government agency estimated C-Falls’ population was virtually static. Between 2010 and 2013 the total hovered around 4,700. Remember, those years also followed the closure of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company and cutbacks in the timber industry. If jobs are leaving, so will people.

But then something changed. Whether it’s an improving economy, investments in infrastructure or Flathead residents priced out of other markets, the city is undergoing a renaissance. It has added more than 100 residents each year since 2013 and an astounding 218 people between 2017 and 2018, according to government estimates.

Here are the latest population estimates for the Flathead’s three largest cities:

Kalispell – 23,938
Whitefish – 7,870
Columbia Falls – 5,575

What’s also encouraging is that the region’s smaller incorporated towns, such as Libby, Eureka and Troy, are showing modest growth.

Among the state’s largest cities, Bozeman still rules, adding 1,581 people between 2017 and 2018. Missoula added 882. Meanwhile, Great Falls and Billings actually lost population over that span, according to estimates.

Western Montana continues to lead the state in growth, while, nationwide, the West and portions of the South are growing faster than the rest of the country. But in Columbia Falls it’s hard to overstate what capital investment, specifically by serial investor Mick Ruis, has meant to the city.

First, he built the $10 million Cedar Creek Lodge near the heart of downtown before selling it to Xanterra Parks and Resorts. Then he began buying up empty lots and blighted buildings along Nucleus Avenue and constructing mixed-use developments that now house retailers and high-end apartments. It turns out, investment spurs investment.

Soon there were new banks and restaurants springing up and the city invested in streetlights through downtown. Last month, after a long effort by local businesses, prominent signage was added to the entrance of the Columbia Falls’ main thoroughfare welcoming visitors. And now the city council is considering adopting a resort to tax to invest in government services, specifically firefighters.

Those years that even some locals acknowledge were “doom and gloom” seem long ago. Today, more incoming residents are choosing to call Columbia Falls home than at any time in recent memory. And after weathering the brunt of the economic downturn, perhaps no city deserves a renaissance more.