In August 2021, data began trickling out of the decennial census report showing just how much Flathead County had changed since 2010. The numbers served to back up what residents already knew: Flathead is growing fast.
Between 2010 and 2021, the county added more than 13,400 new residents — a nearly 15% growth rate that pushed the overall population to nearly 105,000 residents. On March 24, another data set was released by the U.S. Census Bureau that highlighted Kalispell as the nation’s fastest growing micropolitan area — defined as having a core city of less than 50,000 residents — adding 3,681 residents between mid-2020 and mid-2021, an additional 3.5% growth.
Across the valley’s municipalities, these influxes have played out at an increasing rate with infrastructure projects and developments taking place in record number.
At the start of 2021, Kalispell Development Services Director Jarod Nygren predicted a busy year of residential development, due to the COVID-19 pandemic that seemed to be speeding up an already accelerated rate of growth. The city of Kalispell issued 890 permits for new residential units in 2021, doubling the previous year’s record.
To stay on top of the burgeoning population and developmental challenges in the Flathead, the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce hosted the inaugural Growth Summit in 2021 and will put on the second-annual event on April 5.
The summit is intended as a forum for community leaders and businesses to come together and take part in critical conversations and knowledge-building to identify community values, advocacy priorities, and drive solutions to ensure smart growth.
“We felt that growth extremely last year, and we’re starting to see some of what growth can do positively and also where the challenges are,” said Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President Lorraine Clarno. “Businesses are the innovators and problem solvers in the world, so we want to give our local businesses as much information as we can so they can continue to have discussions and create initiatives and action plans.”
Last year’s inaugural gathering of local experts had 179 attendees and focused on housing, development, childcare, and transportation in relation to the valley’s rapid growth.
One central theme was development density, an attractive concept with developers and cities to better utilize existing developed spaces or smaller footprints of open space, both of which are at a premium with record-high property prices and building costs.
Speakers at last year’s summit, like Molly McCabe, the CEO of HaydenTanner, a strategic advisory and development firm, talked about the developing multi-use projects that incorporate housing, retail and office space. That guiding philosophy is on display in Kalispell’s core area with projects like McCabe’s mixed-use development along the Kalispell Parkline Trail, and developer Mick Ruis’ project to redevelop the Kalispell CHS grain elevator property into 230 residential units, retail spaces, and a restaurant and bar on top of the existing grain silos.
The focal points for the 2022 Growth Summit stem from conversations with local businesses, and this year will include the vision for the Kalispell Business Improvement District, discussions on the intersection of growth and public safety and updates on the attainable housing initiative from last year’s summit. There will also be continued focus on workforce housing and childcare, which Clarno said are top issues that local businesses cite as challenges.
“Public safety is a new lens we’re adding this year, because more people probably means more law enforcement and more safety nets for folks,” Clarno said. “Our community’s changing and we want to have an honest, open conversation about what that intersection is in order to get ahead of potential issues so we can be proactive in dealing with them instead of reactive.”
The keynote speaker for the Growth Summit will be John Ghekiere, Vice President of Technology with ClassOne Technologies, a semiconductor equipment manufacturer based in Evergreen. ClassOne technologies began in Kalispell in 2013 with just five employees working out of a storage unit and has grown to more than 100 employees and a global client base.
Ghekiere will discuss the importance of manufacturing growth in the valley in making the Flathead livable by providing high paying jobs in the technology industry.
Clarno said that business sponsors for the summit have grown from four to 14, and she expects attendance to exceed 200. Attendees can register for the Growth Summit by visiting https://kalispellchamber.com/programs/growth-summit/. The cost is $110 and includes breakfast and lunch.
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