Hearing on downtown plan draws mixed reactions

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Main Street in downtown Kalispell on Thursday, Jan. 19. (Matt Baldwin/Daily Inter Lake)

About 70 people assembled to make their voices heard Monday night at the Kalispell City Council’s first public hearing on an update to the downtown plan.

The city has worked the last three years to draft the document that establishes a vision and proposes changes to make historic downtown Kalispell more hospitable. Monday’s discussion was only a public hearing, and no vote was taken on the plan.

The chorus of public comment was one of general support for the plan, but many expressed worries about individual points. Some didn’t like the plan altogether, though those comments were in the minority.

The plan recommends widening sidewalks by 6 feet to create opportunities for outdoor dining, landscaping and room for benches and bike racks. The plan also holds suggestions on how to manage and encourage efficient of use of parking and suggests a parking structure as an effective long-term solution.

The proposal of reducing the number of lanes flowing through downtown from four to three drew the most discussion Monday. Community members and business owners expressed concern that less traffic would mean less business, and that changes meant to push trucks toward the U.S. 93 bypass could also push potential business the same way.

“To or through, that is the questions,” said Eric Robbins, general manager of Aluma Glass, a small business based downtown. “We all want traffic, it’s just the right traffic we want.”

Robbins said he was far more interested in discerning how the city planned to screen the bad traffic from the good. He said removing the roundabouts from the bypass would help divert trucks from the main drag through town, but the city should make sure they didn’t also incentivize potential consumers from driving through town.

Karen Sanderson, owner of Brix Bottle Shop in downtown Kalispell, said she loves the idea of reducing the number of traffic lanes and was fond of the plan in general. Sanderson told council she remains hopeful that people who dissent from the idea now will have a change of heart when they observe the benefits first hand.

Eric Peterson, manager at Kalispell Center Mall, said the high traffic through downtown was a good thing from his perspective.

“Retailers locate on Main Street for certain reasons, and those reasons include traffic,” Peterson said.

Richard Turbiak, executive director of Citizens for a Better Flathead, and Diane Medler, convention and visitor bureau director with the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, both said they would like to see less impactful methods of transportation actively encouraged with the new plan. Chief among their suggestions were marked bike lanes and ample bike racks.

Turbiak also advocated to encourage back-in angle parking so people pulling out are better able to watch out for bicyclists.

Joe Unterreiner, president and CEO of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber was generally supportive of the plan but had a few areas they would like to see beefed up, including the sophistication of the traffic screening.

He cautioned against onerous historical preservation design standards that could diminish the appeal to potential retailers. He said the chamber was also interested in seeing more urban residential development downtown.

“If there’s more that can be done, I think you should give some serious consideration to that,” Unterreiner said.

Dave Skinner had a different perspective. He said he had little faith that efforts by the city to collect feedback that formed the foundation of the plan did an adequate job of including people from other parts of the county.

He said the current roadway through downtown was a valuable transportation corridor, and it was what allowed people like him who did not live downtown to still pass through regularly. He said he thought the council was using an “if we build it, they will come” philosophy, but people were already coming because it was so convenient.

“Don’t touch Main Street, I swear to God,” Skinner said.

Maggie Doherty, who co-owns Kalispell Brewing Co. with her husband, also said the current traffic situation with lots of trucks shouldn’t be decried as all bad. She said they occupy a unique position as both a retail outlet and a manufacturer, and rely on two to three deliveries of grain and other materials every week to keep their business going.

Doc Harkins was one local resident who did not approve of the plan. He is retired, and thinks the plan is the latest in a long historical list of misaimed causes to fix something that isn’t broken.

“This whole thing reminds me of the story of the king and his robe,” Harkins said. “It just seems like it is getting really nuts.”

Harkins said he felt like the city was catering to the business community at the expense of the Kalispell residential community. He said that rather than design downtown so that retailers could make as much money as possible, they should focus on making it as useful as possible for people that live in town.

“I got my tax bill the other day and it’s gone up $300, which isn’t much but when you are on Social Security and retirement it feels like a lot,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, Mayor Mark Johnson thanked the public for their comments. Council is set to consider whether to adopt, revise or reject the proposed plan at its Nov. 20 regular meeting.

IN OTHER business, City Council voted to appoint Emily Schroeder to the Tourism Business Improvement District Board of Directors.

Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or pfrissell@dailyinterlake.com.

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