COLUMBIA FALLS — Traffic buzzed along U.S. Highway 2 on a recent summer afternoon, as cars, trucks and RVs with out-of-state plates made their pilgrimage to Glacier National Park.
But there was also a slight diversion of traffic — a trickle compared to the flow headed east into Bad Rock Canyon — of folks headed to River’s Edge Park for its recent reopening and introduction of a family-friendly, trout-stocked fishing pond.
A brief survey of these families showed they were mostly locals seeking a new way to enjoy the community of Columbia Falls, including parents with young children who are drawn to such amenities.
Housing values, sales and starts are on the rise in Columbia Falls, as the valley continues to reckon with low housing inventory and increasing home-buying costs.
“(Columbia Falls has) had some slow and steady subdivision work come through there, but there is still a lot of low inventory,” said Erica Wirtala of the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors. “It’s that way across the state and even nationally. People are crying for houses and it’s not out there.”
The last decade has been one of evolution and a sort of rebirth for Columbia Falls, which has a rich history of blue-collar, hardscrabble workers building lives and careers in the forest-products and aluminum-refining industries that used to dominate this small town’s economy.
But when the Great Recession of 2008 finally echoed into the Flathead, logging and mill operations started slowing, some stopping completely, and the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company, which once employed hundreds of townspeople, shuttered its plant for good in 2015.
Ten years later, most of the country has bounced back, but logging and lumber never fully recovered. According to a 2018 study from the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, new home construction has more than doubled and lumber prices has increased 40 to 60 percent since the recession, but lumber production in Montana is up just 20 percent. Sales value from Montana’s wood-products facilities were down 10 to 15 percent.
Despite the onslaught to its major industries, Columbia Falls continued to evolve. In 2015, developer Mick Ruis started making waves with his $15 million attempt to revitalize the community by building the city’s first hotel and convention center and revamping a good chunk of Nucleus Avenue.
Now, as Kalispell and Whitefish continue to contend with a lack of affordable housing, Columbia Falls has seen its median sale price for homes increase by almost $100,000 in 10 years.
According to the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors, the median price for a home purchase in Columbia Falls in 2008 was $215,000. The recession didn’t really hit until 2009, when the median price dropped to $180,400.
It hit its lowest mark in 2011, when the median sales price was $155,100, but since then, has continued to grow. By 2018, the median home price hit $280,000.
The number of sales has also increased. In 2008, 133 homes sold in Columbia Falls. Only 119 homes sold in 2011, but 206 sold in 2015, 217 sold in 2017, and 203 sold in 2018.
According to the city’s building department, housing starts are also up since 2008. There were 15 single-family residences and nine townhomes built in town in 2008, and six single-family residences and no townhomes built there in 2009.
By 2018, there were 20 new homes, and 12 new townhouse units, along with two new apartment buildings. In 2017, the city saw four new six-plex buildings, as well as six townhouses and two new duplexes and an apartment building.
Families who can’t find anything in Whitefish or Kalispell increasingly turn to Columbia Falls, Wirtala said, which fits with the town’s recent momentum.
“Things are starting to happen in Columbia Falls that are great,” Wirtala said.