Shaping the Flathead’s future

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Two long-term visions for the Flathead Valley — the Kalispell downtown plan and the U.S. 93 South Whitefish corridor plan — at long last have been adopted by our local government leaders. Both will chart the course for how those areas will be developed in the years to come.

So what’s next? Obviously change doesn’t happen overnight, but the cities and county now have a game plan when developers come knocking.

In downtown Kalispell, the stage is set for creating a more pedestrian-friendly environment where people want to spend time. The plan calls for widening sidewalks by 6 feet, creating bump-outs at crosswalks and trimming Main Street from four to three traffic lanes. Not everyone is convinced this is the way to go, as recent letters to the editor have demonstrated, but everyone agrees something needs to be done — and that this is the right time to make big changes.

That’s because Kalispell is in the midst of a five-year, multifaceted economic development initiative that includes removing 2.7 miles of rail line through Kalispell and relocating CHS and Northwest Drywall to the new rail facility off Whitefish Stage Road. The county commissioners gave that project their imprimatur recently when they OK’d revenue bonds needed to finance the relocation of CHS to the rail park. The likely result of all these changes is major development in the north downtown Kalispell core area, and we had better be ready for it.

A few of the downtown suggestions, such as wider sidewalks, a performing arts center and parking structure, are amenities that were built out in Whitefish as a result of that city’s downtown plan. Downtown development in Whitefish has stimulated well over $9 million of private investment since the Whitefish plan was adopted. And throngs of pedestrians make use of Whitefish’s wider sidewalks throughout the year.

Kalispell faces the challenge of convincing both the Montana Department of Transportation and Flathead County that the number of traffic lanes should be reduced through downtown. The two sides are far apart, but we should point out that Whitefish faced a similar challenge when the state was rebuilding U.S. 93 through its downtown. Whitefish city officials successfully went the distance to collaborate with the state on a plan that better controls through-traffic downtown.

As for the U.S. 93 South Whitefish corridor, the county sank a lot of time into developing a plan that will allow more commercial opportunities in the mile-and-a-half stretch of highway south of Whitefish. A zoning overlay that accompanies the corridor plan places development standards that in many ways mirror the city of Whitefish’s standards.

The corridor plan went through an exhaustive planning process and was revised and tweaked many times before the county commissioners gave it their own thorough review.

It’s an exciting time for growth in the Flathead Valley. These two new guiding documents will help create commercial landscapes that both locals and visitors will enjoy.

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