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Cities focus on downtown strength

December 31, 2018

In 1964, singer Petula Clark turned the song “Downtown” into an unlikely international hit. A downtown booster group could have penned the lyrics.

Fifty-four years later, Clark’s song could describe continued efforts in Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls to crank up the volume in their downtowns.

This fall, Kalispell celebrated the collaborative effort that yielded the Glacier Rail Park, a project proponents say is destined to transform the city’s downtown by ultimately removing railroad tracks cutting through town.

Kalispell City Council also unanimously embraced a new Downtown Urban Renewal Plan that sets the stage for creation of a tax-increment finance district to pay for varied infrastructure improvements in the city’s heart.

In Columbia Falls, the ongoing revitalization of Nucleus Avenue and vicinity continued, with new businesses, new condos and more.

Restaurateur Pat Carloss purchased and remodeled a former bar on Nucleus Avenue and opened the Gunsight Saloon in June.

Next door, Compass Construction owner Bill Goldberg created condos above retail space with his Columbia Quest project.

Goldberg’s company has tackled other projects on Nucleus Avenue, including condos and retail next to the Columbia Bar and condos in the former Davall Building.

Just off Nucleus Avenue, Compass Construction built the “Glacier Courtyards” condos for developer Mick Ruis, who has played a key role in Columbia Falls’ revitalization and been involved in a host of projects on Nucleus Avenue and elsewhere.

One of his largest projects was the 16 million City Hall and adjoining three-story parking garage that opened in 2017, keeping local government offices in the downtown corridor and providing 200 parking spaces.

Whitefish has added a significant number of hotel rooms to its inventory, with the Hampton Inn and Firebrand Hotel opening in 2016, followed by TownePlace Suites by Marriott in 2017.

Whitefish also continued efforts to provide affordable housing.

In November, the Montana Board of Housing awarded 12.75 million from a federal grant fund will allow expansion of a section of the U.S. 93 bypass around Kalispell.

The Montana Department of Transportation will widen a roughly 2-mile section of the bypass from two lanes to four and the Foy’s Lake roundabout will be removed and replaced by an interchange.

Flathead County Commissioner Pam Holmquist described the federal grant as “a wonderful early Christmas present for Flathead County as we continue our efforts to make the alternate route a true bypass.”

Then, in mid-December, Glacier Park International Airport announced that American Airlines plans to offer three new daily flights serving the airport this summer.

U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester both celebrated the news of the new flights.

In early October, the 42-acre, 100,000 grant from the LOR Foundation, worked with the city and others to come up with the idea of a fishing pond at the River’s Edge park along the Flathead River.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks committed to help fund part of the project and to stock the pond annually with westslope cutthroat trout.

The new pond is slated to open during the summer.

Meanwhile, Columbia Falls is considering the pros and cons of a resort tax.

A growing population and an increase in tourism traffic are beginning to strain emergency services, officials say.

Columbia Falls estimates that a 3 percent resort tax could conservatively yield an additional $450,000 in revenue each year. The tax focuses on goods and services, such as hotels, motels, vacation rentals, RV parks and campgrounds, as well as fast foods, restaurants, alcohol and other luxury items.

Columbia Falls would have to be classified by the state Department of Commerce as a resort city to be able to levy the tax.

The region’s ongoing transformation reflects the influence of tourist dollars, as well as the impact of seasonal residents, along with people who move here intending to stay and Flathead Valley natives who frequently experience mixed feelings about all the changes wrought by popularity.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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