When Joe Unterreiner became the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer in 1996, he thought he’d only be there for a few years.
But 24 years later, he’s finally decided to transition into retirement starting this October.
“It’s been a really great run … I really enjoyed the work, obviously, or I wouldn’t have stayed this long,” Unterreiner said. “It’s been a special environment to be able to work in.”
Originally from Pasadena, California, Unterreiner has spent his career around the world. After stints that included interning at the Executive Office of the President in the Reagan Administration in Washington D.C. and working at the American Embassy in Athens, Greece in the 1980s, he and his wife settled in the Flathead Valley in the 1990s, where he’s been the chamber’s president and CEO ever since.
In the past few decades, Unterreiner has helped the chamber grow to 725 member businesses and organizations, employing 60% of workers in Flathead County. He’s also watched Kalispell’s population grow significantly over the years, along with infrastructure, tourism, health care and professional jobs. Most notably, he’s watched and helped the city become a regional trade center for Northwest Montana.
“We were like a branch of Missoula,” he said. “But now you really see Kalispell and the Flathead Valley serving as a trade center in its own right.”
With the valley’s expansion, Unterreiner has watched not only the lower-paying service jobs grow, but also positions in architecture, engineering, law, financial services and health care that have helped boost the area’s economy. Montana Children’s at Kalispell Regional Healthcare is a good indicator of the city’s growth, he said.
Other projects that Unterreiner has helped lead include the launch of Discover Kalispell to boost tourism, curriculum development with Kalispell Public Schools and Flathead Valley Community College, the re-designation of Reserve Drive and expansion of Glacier Park International Airport, which he says has grown 50% in airline passenger service in the past four years, not including 2020.
“I’ve really been very fortunate to work on some really terrific projects in the Flathead,” Unterreiner said. “One that’s spanned my entire tenure is the bypass.”
Since the chamber approached Kalispell City Council with the idea of the Kalispell Bypass in the 1940s, the project was finally approved in the early 1990s with construction starting in the late 2009, Unterreiner said. The Kalispell Bypass gave the city a “shovel ready” project during the recession, providing a significant number of immediate jobs.
“One of the prime examples of his work is the bypass,” said Tom Ray, the Kalispell Chamber Board Chairman and Weyerhaeuser Montana Region Manager. “He was an instrumental leader in bringing that to aspiration and that’s a huge asset to the valley.”
After serving on the board with Unterreiner for three years, Ray applauds his organization and leadership, which he says has been especially apparent during the coronavirus pandemic with frequent communication.
The chamber has named Mike Smith, the Senior Vice President of Glacier Bank, to chair a search for Unterreiner’s successor, who is expected to start this October.
Unterreiner emphasizes the importance of finding his replacement before the 2021 legislative session, which he says will pose budget and revenue challenges.
“I’m really grateful (for) the businesses here and their commitment to having a strong business environment and especially grateful to my board of directors and especially my board chairs over the years who have all been outstanding, and they’ve created the environment for me to stick around for 24 years,” Unterreiner said.
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