Tom Jentz grew up in a tiny town in rural North Dakota that had, by his count, “98 old people, 12 dogs and 13 cats.” There was hardly a need for robust development regulation, or any intensive municipal infrastructure. Not much in that upbringing foretold Jentz’s eventual role as one of the most pivotal figures in guiding the Flathead Valley through a three-decade period of transformative growth.
Jentz studied history and political science with the intention of attending law school but grew interested in modern planning, which hadn’t yet taken root across much of the Western U.S. in the 1970s. He was drawn to the concept and practice of using expertise to help cities and towns evolve, and interested in how decisions today shape municipalities and regions for decades to come.
“I wanted to have some hand in change, some hand in what the future would look like,” Jentz said. “I liked the idea of working with people, of casting a vision for how areas should grow and develop, and always having a bigger picture for what’s going on.”
Jentz obtained his master’s degree in planning and took his first job with a regional planning authority in North Dakota, “at the beginning of organized planning in the West.” After two years, he left to work for the city of Lewiston, Idaho for the next four years. He had decided to migrate West after attending a conference in Colorado.
“I came back from Colorado with a changed view of my future: mountains, the West,” he said. “I had never seen clear streams or mountains or realized people could actually make a living out there.”
But it was the mountains and aura of Northwest Montana, experienced on a motorcycle trip to Glacier National Park, that took the deepest hold in Jentz’s imagination. He jumped at the opportunity to take a job at the Flathead Regional Development Office in 1983. Over the next 36 years, he would assume various roles within planning departments across Flathead County, including serving as Kalispell planning and building director since 2005.
Jentz’s last day is Dec. 5, and the decision to retire is bittersweet: he’ll miss the work and people dearly, but as a ceaselessly active aficionado of hiking, hunting, kayaking, skiing, cycling and running, he’ll enjoy the newfound time to pursue those loves more freely with his wife Tamie. He’ll also be able to contribute more at his church, spend time with grandchildren and perhaps take up furniture making.
“I’m going to stay busy,” Jentz, 66, said.
The Flathead Regional Development Office was responsible for planning in Flathead County and the three cities of Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls. Jentz was promoted to director in 1996, and then after the joint department dissolved in 2001, he took over the newly established Tri-City Planning Office that served the three cities. One evening, Jentz managed to attend city council meetings in each town.
“That was my most insane moment, but that was life and we did it,” he said. “There was a lot of stuff happening in the valley.”
When the three cities amicably parted ways in 2005, Jentz became the director of the Kalispell planning office. He also oversees the city’s building and community development departments. In total, through all his positions, Jentz has attended roughly 1,500 city council meetings and work sessions.
Over the decades, at one point or another, Jentz authored every central planning document used by the county, Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls, although with typically self-deprecating humor he says, “fortunately wiser folks have intervened since then.” He said the population of both the county and Kalispell has doubled in his 36 years, as has Kalispell’s land area through annexation. There used to be one traffic light between Kalispell City Hall and Whitefish, and now there are more than 20 and counting.
“I’ve seen a lot of change,” he said.
Planners aren’t politicians, but in rapidly changing and growing areas like the Flathead Valley, they are often thrust into the public eye and are at the center of highly impactful, at times controversial, decisions that dive into thorny issues such as property rights, complicated relationships between different towns and governments, and the future of neighborhoods and landscapes, which is to say people’s very homes and lives.
Jentz, who has an infectious enthusiasm and quick wit, as well as an upbeat team-minded approach, was well-suited to serve such a role. His department’s decisions, by their nature, inevitably have both supporters and critics, but Jentz was consistently willing to answer to them with disarming aplomb and an appealing genuineness. He likes maps and data, but he especially likes people. He describes his job as one-third counselor, one-third referee and one-third planner.
“I think Tom has always been a guy that wears his heart on his sleeve, and he thoroughly enjoys his position,” said Jerry Meerkatz, the president and CEO of Montana West Economic Development. “I’m sure retirement is a hard decision but one that he’ll embrace with the same enthusiasm that he has embraced his job for the last 36 years.”
Of the countless projects he’s been involved with, Jentz is most proud of the industrial park and core redevelopment plan passing unanimously in 2013, a project that city officials say is “transformative” with the potential to reshape the city of Kalispell for generations to come. The city had unsuccessfully tried for many years to get the project off the ground, and Meerkatz said Jentz was instrumental in pushing it forward and maintaining optimism among various stakeholders.
“The thing with Tom is that he was so good at keeping people inspired about it, and always keeping it front of mind with everybody who had a hand in it,” Meerkatz said. “He kept all of us inspired about that dream even when it was tough going. I think anybody in Kalispell would say the same.”
More broadly, Meerkatz says, “Tom’s done a phenomenal job of managing growth in Kalispell.”
Jentz was also a central early figure in the development of local trails, which today form a sprawling network throughout the valley but were nonexistent when he and others started laying the groundwork decades ago.
For years, Jentz has told his staff every week, “Let’s go out and do great things.”
“Now it’s their turn,” he wrote in a memo to city employees. “For me it’s time to move on to my next chapter. It has been a good run.”