Flathead Valley Ripe for Sports Tourism Initiatives

An analysis by The Sports Facilities Companies laid out a vision at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon for a multisport athletic complex in the valley; two local business owners are already planning to break ground this spring

By Micah Drew
Basketball player holds a basketball. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As northwest Montana continues to see more unpredictable weather — from smoke-filled summers to blizzards in the spring — the community might consider the benefits of a large, state-of-the-art indoor sports complex, a partner at The Sports Facilities Companies told the February Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Evan Eleff presented the results of a feasibility study commissioned by the chamber to help local business leaders understand the impact sports tourism could have on the valley. Studies show that families with kids participating in club and travel sports programs spend between $800 and $1,600 during a weekend tournament.

“If we get a sliver of those people, one or two times per year, that’s a big difference maker for this economy,” Eleff said. “But to hit the nail on the head, people don’t choose to go places if they don’t have great facilities to participate in. A facility like this is a catalyst for economic development. When people come in, they need to spend the night in hotels and eat at restaurants and shop and be entertained and then they will mark their calendars for the next time they visit because they got three days in market but they didn’t get to go out to Glacier.”

Eleff laid out the vision his company developed for the Flathead Valley market, a “dream big” concept facility that would house multiple basketball courts, turf fields and two ice rinks — one permanent and one seasonal — and carry a price tag of between $70 to $100 million. Eleff said his company has successfully led other communities through a road map that includes everything from a feasibility study to raising public and private funds to building and managing the final operations.

“We have seen projects like this go from back of napkin all the way through long term successful operations,” Eleff said.

The Flathead Valley has a head start, however.

The Chamber luncheon ended with a short announcement by local business owners Jeremy Myers and Cara Lemire who have already begun bringing the vision of a year-round sports complex to life.  

Myers, a Columbia Falls insurance agent, and Lemire, who owns a local construction company and the Sherman Lodge, separately have long envisioned creating a large-scale, multi-use athletics facility to provide indoor opportunities for youth and community athletics. A chance introduction last year set the ball in motion and they decided to join forces.

Myers and Lemire purchased a 25-acre plot of land off of MT Highway 2 near Glacier Park International Airport and plan to break ground on their facility this spring or summer.

“It’s still early, and we don’t have final designs or official announcements yet, but we’re excited it’s on its way,” Myers said.

The preliminary design includes more than 220,000 square feet of athletic space, plus an additional 50,000 square feet of mixed retail space to give the location well-rounded utility.

The facility will include three main sections: one housing six basketball courts, including a championship court; a building with two or three regulation-sized turf soccer fields; and a hockey building with two sheets of ice.

“One of the things the size of this allows for is during those offseason, off-tournament days, all of the local groups can practice here,” Myers said. “A challenge with having multiple kids in sports is dropping one kid off one place at five, then another at another location later, then going to pick up the first one. Here, we’ll have enough space to have all those practices done in one fell swoop and get everyone in and out the door, and then even add more programs to the valley.”

While Eleff discussed the benefits of public-private partnerships with large athletic complexes, Myers said he and Lemire felt they needed to act fast to get the ball rolling on their project.

“Those numbers thrown out were realistic,” Myers said. “It’s a big number, an expensive project, but we didn’t have the time or the luxury of waiting to get public funding and support. We just set off, bought the land, and kept going.”

With a groundbreaking planned for the spring, Lemire said they hope to start hosting larger community discussions to fine tune the design of each facility pod to maximize the use for the myriad organizations in the valley, as well as seek additional financial partnerships.

“We appreciate the business community and we’ll be looking to you all for support and ideas. We hope to really create a great place for our kids and to be able to bring that tourism money into the valley,” Lemire said. “We’re excited about this project and know that it’s a big project to take on, but once it gets out into the community and the community members are getting involved, I think it’s just going to be welcomed.”

Eleff’s presentation focused on the feasibility of the Flathead Valley having a sports complex that can become a regional hub. As an example, he pointed to The Podium in Spokane, which hosts numerous national-caliber competitions with an indoor track and field facility and room for nine basketball courts, 16 volleyball courts and 21 wrestling mats.

A similar sized facility that focused on year-round activities and events is projected to draw visitors from Montana, Idaho, eastern Washington and Canada. The estimated total economic impact would be around $9 million in the first year, and more than $16 million within five years, according to The Sports Facilities Companies study.

“That’s creating opportunities for existing businesses to thrive, new businesses to be developed and everyone to win,” Eleff said. “It’s kind of a once a once-in-a-generation opportunity to go forward with a facility like this or a program like this that combines multiple facilities partnerships. And it’s not just economic impact, because this will be a local service where we can provide better access for kids to be active.”

The Flathead Valley has seen a surge of interest in sporting venues in recent years. Construction began last year on an indoor baseball training facility at the ABS Park in Evergreen, while a youth center housing a soccer field, basketball and volleyball courts has been proposed as part of a development on the corner of Church Drive and U.S. Highway 93.