With ongoing parking lot improvements, a strong start to a capital campaign and the food bank cementing itself as a permanent anchor, the Gateway Community Center in west Kalispell has entered 2021 with a solidifying path to long-term sustainability.
Northwest Montana United Way owns the majority of the former Gateway West Mall and operates it as a nonprofit campus through an entity called Westside CCC. But the full realization of the organization’s vision of a one-stop shop for human services has been hampered by financial challenges and turmoil under former leadership.
Under the watch of new United Way Executive Director Roxanna Parker, however, the Gateway Community Center had a strong year in 2020 despite the pandemic, as it welcomed five new tenants and launched a $4.2 million capital campaign called Gateway 2 Miracles (G2M), buoyed by a $300,000 matching grant and separate $100,00 donation.
Furthermore, the east-side parking lot has been refurbished, while the northern section is in the midst of renovation, leaving the western portion as the final frontier for a parking lot that has long been in dire need of maintenance.
“Roxanna has really helped move us through all of this,” said Carol Nelson, the G2M steering committee chair and United Way board member. “It’s been great.”
In February, United Way plans to launch a full-throated public effort to spread awareness about the capital campaign and the Gateway Community Center as a whole, which remains an enigma to segments of the population.
“I’m absolutely thrilled that we’re doing the campaign and to watch the progress we’ve made so far,” Parker said.
The first priority of the $4.2 million capital campaign is to pay off the mortgage on United Way’s portion of the former mall, which represents the bulk of the structure’s square footage. United Way purchased the building in 2015 after leasing it since 2009.
United Way also plans to use the money to finish fixing the parking lot and do other infrastructure work, including the completion of interior build-outs in a handful of units, as well as establish a reserve fund for future needs.
The wing of the building occupied by TTEC is owned by the Flathead County Economic Development Authority, while Flathead Food Bank has been a rent-paying tenant in the southern section since 2009. But the food bank finalized the purchase of its 27,000-square-foot space on Dec. 30, a deal praised by both the food bank and United Way officials as strengthening the futures of both organizations.
Jamie Quinn, executive director of the food bank, said her organization has been looking to secure its own location for years, but none of the other available options fit the bill. The purchase of its current place provides long-term stability, while cementing it as an anchor for the Gateway Community Center.
Quinn also said property ownership is a better use of donor dollars than putting money toward rent, and like Nelson and Parker, she is encouraged by the building’s ongoing evolution into a “one-stop shop for services.”
“We wanted to stay where we were even after doing our due diligence looking around,” Quinn said. “We thought this should really be the home of the food bank.”
The food bank received a Montana Food Bank Network grant through Feeding America to help pay for the purchase and programming. Quinn said the organization plans to conduct renovations, including switching storage racking from horizontal to vertical, which will free up space.
The food bank aims to eventually become a regional warehouser, removing some of the burden from the Montana Food Bank Network. It’s coming off a record-breaking year, driven by pandemic-caused demand, in which it distributed 3.4 million pounds of food to 78,000 people, compared to 1.7 million pounds to 57,000 people in 2019.
With five new tenants coming onboard at Gateway Community Center in the last several months, Nelson said 80% of units are now occupied, with more than 20 agencies now located there. The largest empty unit may have an interested tenant.
Nelson also points out that the building’s conference rooms and common areas are regularly used by a wide assortment of entities, including Toastmasters, rotary clubs, Audubon Society, dance clubs and Flathead Valley Community College classes, among others.
“It’s become a community center for everyone, not just those in need,” Nelson said. “That makes it even more valuable to the community.”