Columbia Falls is experiencing a period of growth and revitalization, with new and refurbished downtown buildings hosting a diversifying cross-section of businesses, and young families laying down roots alongside longtime residents who can remember the heyday of the now-shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant. Meanwhile, tourism continues to boom and reshape the city.
With such a time of transition comes the need for planning, including discussions over the best ways to balance the town’s traditional character with its new realities. That’s why the five candidates vying for three seats on the six-member Columbia Falls City Council, including three incumbents running for reelection, all cite responsible growth management as a top priority.
One immediate issue facing this next council is a resort tax proposal, which could provide an extra funding source to help steer growth and alleviate property taxes. An advisory committee is currently working to formulate the proposal, which would be forwarded to council, likely early next year, and then move on to a public vote.
The state Department of Commerce announced earlier this year that Columbia Falls qualifies as a resort tax community, which allows the city to implement a local-option sales tax on certain goods and services that can’t exceed 3 percent.
Doug Karper, who has served on the council for more than 20 years and is running again for reelection this year, says it’s a good sign that the city is grappling with growth-related issues.
“Growth brings its problems and issues, but it’s better and more fun dealing with those than sitting there looking at empty storefronts and dilapidated buildings,” he said. “It’s really nice to see. It energizes everyone. At the same time, we have work to do. We have to plan. We have to be responsible and sustainable so we don’t outgrow ourselves.”
The other four candidates on the ballot this fall are incumbents Darin Fisher and John Piper, as well as challengers Steve Hughes and Clay Lundgren.
Fisher, who has served on the council for eight years, said he hopes to build upon the council’s efforts to foster a “business climate that encourages private investment and development throughout the community while enforcing common-sense regulations.” He cites the creation of a tax-increment financing (TIF) district in 2015 as an example.
“The city needs to continue guiding economic growth by enacting and enforcing reasonable regulations while respecting private property rights,” Fisher said.
Hughes said the biggest issue facing the city is its tax base, which is illustrated in the discussions over a possible resort tax. He also believes affordable housing and “sustainable infrastructure” are foremost issues.
“The city council is already tackling these big issues,” he said. “(I want) to broaden our community partners and be open with the shared visions from the community for the future.”
Lundgren, who is a citizen member of the resort tax advisory committee, says a resort tax could be a “great tool” to alleviate property taxes, as long as it’s smartly implemented so as not to place undue burden on locals. He also wants to help grow the “right kind of business,” pointing to SmartLam as an example.
“We need to create job growth in the things that are going to provide a livable wage, and that’s tough with just retail,” he said.
Piper, who has served on the council for four years, says the city must be careful to provide services to accommodate growth “without burdening the local taxpayers with the entire bill.” He says the city will soon need to transition from a volunteer fire department to paid personnel, and he believes a resort tax, “for lack of a better word,” could “help generate much-needed funding.”
The candidates offer diverse backgrounds that they believe will help them guide the city if elected.
Karper worked for the school district for 27 years, heading up facility maintenance, and has been involved with a number of organizations and committees, including serving as past president of the chamber of commerce.
“I know where we have been, where we are now and how we got here,” he said. “We have come a long way and I believe my experience can help us to continue along a path of responsible and sustainable growth while maintaining the small-town atmosphere that we all desire.”
Fisher owns Backslope Brewing with his wife and is a former U.S. Forest Service employee, which he says gives him knowledge of both the private and public sectors. He also said his two terms on the council have given him a “good understanding of how the process of local governance works.”
“I also have a breadth of different experiences that give me varied perspectives on issues that come before the council,” Fisher said, adding that as a father of young children he is “fully invested in the Columbia Falls community.”
Hughes, who is retired, spent 11 years as a police officer and detective in Columbia Falls and currently serves on the planning board. He hopes to be “a voice for the people of Columbia Falls.”
“I have the energy, commitment and time,” he said. “I feel the need to continue serving the community as I have before. Together we solved a lot of problems. I want to continue to be involved.”
Piper is a supervisor at the Montana Veterans Home who was born and raised in Columbia Falls, which he says gives him a “vested interest in its future.” Piper also spent years as a firefighter and the town’s fire chief.
Lundgren previously worked as an international sales manager for Hammer Nutrition and is now assistant manager at the Jiffy Lube in Columbia Falls. With no prior political experience, he believes he would bring a fresh perspective to the council with an emphasis on directly incorporating public feedback.
Elected councilors serve four-year terms. Columbia Falls has switched to an all-mail election this year, with ballots sent out to voters on Oct. 16 and due back by 8 p.m. on Nov. 5. The ballots can be mailed to the Flathead County Election Department or dropped off by hand there, or voters can hand-deliver ballots to a drop box at Columbia Falls City Hall.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.