Columbia Falls City Council Candidates Differ in Approaches to Prioritizing Growth

In the aftermath of the resort tax and council member disagreement over housing projects, these four candidates seek to balance development and serve the working class

By Anusha Mathur
Nucleus Avenue and downtown Columbia Falls as seen on May 23, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In Columbia Falls, competition for the upcoming city council election is friendly, but nonetheless fierce. As the once industrial town transforms from the heart of the logging and timber industry into a hotspot for tourism and out-of-state investment, the candidates envision different pathways to reconciling these competing interests.

Incumbents Darin Fisher, John Piper, and Kelly Hamilton-King as well as one challenger, Kathryn Price, vie for three spots. On the ballot this fall is the delicate balance between stimulating economic growth in a forward-looking direction and preserving the small-town culture and working-class community that many Columbia Falls residents feel is slipping through their fingertips.

A lot has changed since Darin Fisher was first elected to city council 12 years ago. The former Forest Service employee and current owner of Backslope Brewing first moved to Columbia Falls in 2009. As he runs for his fourth term in office, he said that at top of mind is affordable housing and ensuring that the people who have historically called Columbia Falls home aren’t priced out of their own community.

“The Covid boom here and in a lot of other western areas certainly changed the housing game,” Fisher said. “The biggest issue right now is the squeezing out of the middle class and the working class all over the valley. Especially in Columbia Falls, if we want to stay a working-class town like we historically have been with the mills and the aluminum company, we need to have more housing that people can afford to buy.”

Nucleus Avenue and downtown Columbia Falls, Montana as seen on May 23, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In Columbia Falls development has been contentious – the city council’s split vote and ultimate rejection of the 7030 Highway 2 Residences proposal is evidence that the community holds differing opinions regarding the extent to which new development should be approved. Fisher, who was one of two council members who voted in support of this proposal, sees dense housing development east of the Flathead River as key to keeping prices affordable.

“I understand that people don’t like to see change and they want everything to be ranchettes on half-acres and one acre and I’m not against those by any means,” Fisher said. “But if we can’t get a house under $300,000, then teachers, nurses, police officers, and firefighters aren’t going to be able to live here. We can either use the zoning tools that we have to make dense, affordable housing or someone will buy the land and put three one-million-dollar houses on 20 acres.”

Fisher has also been an advocate of measures that churn tourism revenue back into the Columbia Falls community. He said that the policy he is most proud of shaping during his time in office is the resort tax. Passed in 2021, this policy instituted a 3% tax on non-essential “luxury” goods and services sold by businesses within city limits.

“I was on the committee that researched and designed it and I was a huge advocate for it,” Fisher said. “Before [the tax], we, the citizens of Columbia Falls, were subsidizing all the tourists and visitors coming through. And now they’re actually paying for the services they use. [The resort tax] is doing exactly what we needed it to do, the main thing being providing for public safety. We have a paid fire department now, which is amazing, and we have more funding for our police department.”

John Piper, another incumbent seeking reelection, takes a more measured approach to growth. He said that what he’s most proud of during his two terms as city councilor is keeping taxes reasonable. The 62-year-old has lived in Columbia falls his entire life, working as a firefighter for much of that time. He is now a shift supervisor at Montana Veterans Home.

“I initially ran because I had a lot to say and I thought, well I could do it from the gallery or I could do it from the seat,” Piper said. “I never realized what it takes to run a city – it’s very expensive. Infrastructure isn’t cheap, parks aren’t cheap, anything we do isn’t cheap, but we have got to keep an eye on it. That’s the function of us as councilors, to make sure we’re being diligent with the taxpayers’ money.”

As a Columbia Falls native and active volunteer, Piper said that he acutely feels the community’s rapid changes. He views his role on the city council as being the gatekeeper of new projects. Consistent with his cautious approach, he was initially against the resort tax. He said that he eventually came around to supporting it and now pinpoints specific benefits that it has brought to the community. Piper said that when deciding what changes to throw his support behind, his biggest consideration is impact.

“Impact is key – impact on our roadways, what you’re willing to do to mitigate traffic, the density of a project, the effect it has on our wildlife that we hold so dear,” Piper said. “I want everybody to play by the rules. I don’t want to change a lot of things just to help the developer, but then again, if they buy the land, they do have some property rights. So, it’s a fine line.”

Aerial view of a 140-acre parcel east of the Flathead River and north of U.S. Highway 2 in Columbia Falls, pictured on June 29, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The third candidate on the ballot Kelly Hamilton-King’s biggest point of pride is that she lives in the same home as her grandparents once did, making her grandchildren the fifth generation in her family to grow up in Columbia Falls. Hamilton-King joined the city council in 2022 in a special appointment after council member Doug Karper resigned. But her journey in city council began long before, when she transitioned from reading divisive opinions on Facebook to attending public meetings.

“I was hearing in the community all these different ideas and gossip and I thought, I want to know what is really going on with the resort tax and with the buildings that are being proposed in Columbia Falls,” Hamilton-King said. “I started going to the meetings and I got interested in the processes that the city council would go through. I even attended via Zoom a couple of times because I couldn’t be there, and it was just fascinating.”

Now, as a council member, when making decisions, Hamilton-King clearly distinguishes between growth and housing. As the Flathead Valley Toys for Tots Coordinator and frequent volunteer in homeless communities, she said that she feels the current growth coming into Columbia Falls fails to help the community members who most need it, especially the elderly and children.

She feels that the time spent debating housing east of the river is energy that should be refocused back inside the city limits. If elected, Hamilton-King said she would work with collaborative housing organizations to find solutions to the ongoing homelessness crisis.

“The money that has come in is totally different from our people physically having housing,” Hamilton-King said. “The homeless in our community are not the cart pushers with the 14 layers of clothes that people imagine are homeless. Your grandma and grandpa don’t have housing right now. I want to make housing easier, and I think it’s feasible; we just need to focus on it.”

Hamilton-King also said that she emphasizes listening to community members when making decisions as a council member. She’s adopted the motto “I live here too” to be her guiding principle as a public servant.

“[Council members] do not sit up on a higher platform than anybody else,” Hamilton-King said. “I like to see us out in the community with people so that they understand that we put our pants on one leg at a time, we breathe the same air, we’re no different. I love when people send in letters of support or non-support for things. I read every single one of them word for word several times, because I want their opinions. That’s one of my niches.”

Kathryn Price, the only challenger on the ballot, is a self-proclaimed Columbia Falls “lifer.” She graduated from Columbia Falls High School in 1989, attended Flathead Valley Community College, and raised all four of her children in the city. She is also the proud owner of two Columbia Falls businesses: a commercial lending company and a craft and hobby shop, where she frequently makes custom kits for local high schools.

Price said that she has been investing in the community her entire life and has been disappointed by the adversarial relationship that the current city council has with the public. She said that she has seen council members speak down to residents and, if elected, she vows to instead prioritize listening.

Being the only non-incumbent throwing my hat in the ring, I’m doing that because I think we need more longtime residents there, and we need people being held accountable for decisions they’re making and holding to those rules,” Price said. “There are several council members that yell at the community members when they get up and speak at the podium and I just don’t think that’s very professional. It’s why there’s so much animosity in that arena right now.”

U.S. Hwy 2 crosses the Flathead River east of Columbia Falls on Feb. 9, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Like the three others running for city council, Price believes that responsible growth is a top priority for Columbia Falls. She feels that several recent city council decisions have sacrificed the local community to serve abstract future residents.

“As a city council, we need to think of ways that we’re helping to build our community but do it in a manner that is beneficial for not only the developers coming in, but also the existing residents here,” Price said. “A lot of the decisions are being made for the future residents of Columbia Falls but at the expense of the current existing residents having to fund that bill.”

She said she is frustrated by developers’ hypocrisy and wants the council to make more thoughtful decisions regarding new housing projects.

“These developers come in and say affordable housing and then in our working-class community they sell that housing for half a million dollars or more,” Price said. “It just seems like everything’s on fast forward and we’re not really taking the time to hear everyone’s whole perspective. I honestly want our council and our city government to consider investing back into the community, as a partner with the business owners and the residents instead of an adversary.”

To register to vote in this city council election, find your polling place and for general information about the 2023 election, visit www.flathead.mt.gov/election. Municipal elections will be held Tuesday, Nov. 7. The Flathead County Election Department will mail absentee ballots on Oct. 23.

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