A Downtown Renaissance

The future of downtown Kalispell brims with possibility. With it come questions of what that future should look like, and who it should serve.

By Denali Sagner
Downtown Kalispell in August, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On a sunny weekday afternoon in July, Main Street in downtown Kalispell is far livelier than one might expect. Young children with ice-cream-covered hands chase each other around the Sweet Peaks picnic tables. A sizable lunch crowd enjoys the outdoor seating at Bonelli’s Bistro, chatting over iced tea and house-made salads. Traffic whizzes by, stopping for cyclists and runners at the newly erected pedestrian crossing signal on the Parkline Trail by Depot Park. 

 “When I walk in downtown Kalispell or drive in downtown Kalispell, every single day it’s been so exciting this summer to see the many visitors we’re having in our community,” Kalispell Downtown Association Executive Director Pam Carbonari said. “It looks and appears like they’re all buying. That’s what we want to see.” 

The past decade in downtown Kalispell has been colored by remarkable change, as new storefronts have supplanted old institutions, developers have broken ground on massive projects and tens of thousands of newcomers have made the city their home. The grand opening of the Kalispell Parkline Linear Park & Trail on July 21 marked what many local leaders see as a significant step forward in the city’s urban development and an opportunity to attract new commerce. As residents, business owners and politicians look ahead, downtown Kalispell’s economy brims with possibility — and with it, difficult questions surrounding the city’s civic responsibility to its growing population. 

In March 2022, Kalispell took the title of Montana’s fastest-growing urban area, outpacing Bozeman, which had long held the moniker. Between pre-pandemic 2019 and 2022, Kalispell gained 2,243 residents, bringing its current estimated population to 25,484. Historic population data puts these fast-growing numbers into even clearer perspective — Kalispell’s 2022 population dwarfs its 19,927 residents in 2010, 14,223 in 2000 and 11,917 in 1990. 

Over the past five years, expansive population growth has been met with a revitalization of the city’s core downtown area. In 2018, Bias Brewing opened its doors on First Avenue, selling craft beers, cold brew and comfort food. In 2019, MontaVino Winery & Tasting Room set up shop down the block. Then came the remodeling of beloved Ceres Bakery in 2020, the opening of the KM Bar, Mercantile Steakhouse and the Alchemy Lounge in 2021 and The Ritz nail salon and cocktail bar in 2022. 

Now, a host of planned developments aim to make downtown Kalispell even more attractive for residents and businesses as the city continues to rebound from the pandemic. 

 Last summer, construction began on the former CHS grain elevator property, a multi-use development planned by Columbia Falls-based developer Mick Ruis. The revamped property, situated on Center Street and Fifth Avenue West, will feature a restaurant situated on top of the 100-foot silos, a bar below it, 230 residential units and a handful of retail spaces. Ruis’ project is a major expansion for both the residential and leisure economies of Kalispell, yet it is one that will “stay as a homage to the past,” Carbonari said, alluding to the agricultural façade maintained in the development’s design. 

A few blocks away, on Third Street West and Main Street, developers are hoping to bolster Kalispell’s tourism business with the construction of a five-story hotel. A multi-million-dollar project, the proposed hotel will feature 79 units, valet parking, a full-service restaurant and a rooftop bar on the site of what is now a city-owned parking lot. In addition to the boutique hotel, the Kalispell City Council initially approved the coinciding development of a 250-space parking garage, which will be constructed by the hotel developers for city use. In exchange for constructing the public garage, the hotel developers will be reimbursed with tax increment funding (TIF) and will be able to lease 90 spaces in the garage. The garage is slated to be built on the site of the city’s Eagles lot at First Street West and First Avenue West. 

Marshall Noice, Kalispell Business Improvement District board member, said that he is looking forward to construction on the city-owned parking lots. 

“Any vacant lots within the business area are something that the city is working diligently, and should be working diligently, to eliminate,” Noice said. “We’d like to see greater density.” 

For many in town, the crown jewel of Kalispell’s new developments is the city’s Parkline Trail, which was officially inaugurated last week. The ten-year long, $20 million project connects the city’s eastern and western ends, replacing the historical Great Northern Railway, which once anchored the local economy. The Parkline Trail is designed to be a central hub for safe urban recreation and a physical juncture that will funnel consumers towards storefronts on Main Street. 

“Those sorts of cultural amenities are a really critical part of the growth equation for any community. For Kalispell to have figured out a way to bring that project to completion is really a feather in the cap for the city council and Kalispell city government,” Noice said. 

Other projects are planned to dot the Parkline Trail in the coming months, including an expansion by the Sunrift Beer Company and the development of a 5-acre parcel acquired by local developer Molly McCabe, which will likely become apartments, townhomes, restaurants and retail storefronts. While land along the railroad tracks used to be undesirable for residential and commercial properties, its new proximity to the Parkline Trail makes it ripe for development. 

In addition, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Lorraine Clarno said that five buildings are currently for sale downtown, which she believes represent exciting possibilities for further development. The Kalispell Business Improvement District is set to launch a public relations campaign in the near future to attract businesses to the vacant storefronts. 

As many residents and business owners celebrate new commerce in downtown Kalispell, questions remain surrounding access and affordability for a growing population strained by a grim economy. When the Kalispell City Council approved initial plans for five-story hotel and accompanying parking garage in January, Ryan Hunter stood out as the only councilor to vote in opposition to the project. Hunter said he was—and remains—weary of using public funds and public assets to subsidize a private business. 

“My concern with Third and Main was that we were giving this land, valued at close to $300,000, to the developer for private development,” Hunter told the Beacon. “We have lots of hotels. We don’t need to incentivize hotels.”

Rather, Hunter said, he believes the city should consider investing in “something that the market doesn’t provide, like affordable housing.” The lack of accessible housing options in the valley has long been an issue, with the average sales price of a home in Kalispell reaching $734,119 last month, a disconcerting price tag for a city whose median household income stood at $47,750 in 2020.  

Hunter said that he is excited about the various new developments cropping up downtown, like the Parkline Trail and Ruis’ silo project, which add urban density and economic opportunity to the growing city center. Without a focus on equitable housing access and development informed by residents’ needs, however, he remains critical of current plans. 

“I object to the idea that somehow people need affordable housing aren’t also people that will shop downtown,” he said, pushing back against the notion that affordable housing would impede business interests. “When you have a mix of it, it makes for a better community.”

Clarno said that the chamber is focused on helping the city create “attainable housing” for “everyone who works full-time and hard.” 

Though many local officials said they are looking forward to the new parking garage proposed in the hotel plan, Hunter also called into question assertions that such a garage would be a worthy use of space. 

“There’s no need for parking downtown. Every parking study that’s been done about downtown parking says that we don’t have a parking problem,” he said. “It’s a perception problem.” 

In its 2017 Kalispell Downtown Plan, the Kalispell City Council wrote that the results of a parking utilization study “revealed that the current amount of parking accommodates the parking for the majority of downtown” and that “adding more parking in the downtown is not an essential component of the proposed downtown plan.” Notably, however, Kalispell’s population has grown considerably since the initial study was conducted. 

As construction crews continue to make headway on Kalispell’s new projects, questions remain about the future of other downtown institutions. The Kalispell Center Mall, once a major shopping hub, has been without one of its anchors, Herberger’s, since 2018. Now, it stands out as a major question mark for shoppers and city officials alike. 

“Having the retail is important for downtown, but if they can’t fill it with retail, it’s going to have to have a repurposed use,” Carbonari said. “It certainly creates an opportunity for someone with a vision.”

The Kalispell Downtown Association “would love to see a convention center or some sort of facility that would accommodate recreation or music” in place of the mall, she added.

As Kalispell’s downtown looks ahead, local leaders will be tasked with weighing competing concerns and working towards development that benefits the city’s many communities. With abundant visions for the future, Carbonari remains optimistic about the city’s prospects. 

“I’m excited for downtown Kalispell. 2019, ’20, ’21, they were hard years,” she said. “Now, we’re seeing that reversing.”

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