Kalispell saw a genesis of new industry and hope on New Year’s Day, 1892, with the arrival of the first train into town. In that era, railroads were renowned for the prosperity they brought to a town, and Flathead residents moved quickly to take advantage of that promise. Droves of residents moved their Demersville homes northward to Kalispell, inching them along on logs, to be closer to the new hub of commerce. Overnight, Demersville became a ghost town.
Twelve short years later, much to the chagrin of those same residents, the Great Northern Railway moved its main line north through Whitefish. Despite that challenge, Kalispell continued to grow, establishing itself as the Flathead Valley’s center of commerce.
Today, a new chapter in the story is emerging, one that may place Kalispell again at center stage for rail access in Northwestern Montana.
This spring, work starts on the Glacier Rail Park, a new industrial park for rail-served businesses. The Glacier Rail Park will provide the Flathead access to worldwide ports at competitive freight rates via railroad. This rail park and the corollary improvements — such as the Kalispell bypass — are addressing large needs for the Flathead and can help open the door to new jobs. Though the Flathead offers a tremendous breadth of activities, which contribute to a high quality of life, high-paying jobs are not as plentiful. Local economic growth has suffered as a result, but this can be changed.
To improve opportunities for local residents, we must attract employers offering year-round jobs and higher wages. Manufacturing provides just that: stable, higher paying, skilled employment — a foundation on which a community can flourish. As it grows, it serves as a magnet for more and better talent, ultimately creating a viable, competitive environment for manufacturers.
One of the largest challenges Flathead Valley manufacturers face is transportation. Though the rails once provided a strong shipping resource for many local businesses, at present, access is essentially unavailable to those located off the tracks. Small manufacturers must use other, more expensive forms of transportation.
As a result, some local manufacturers pay up to 30 percent more overall for shipping than competitors based in outside markets. These freight rates often prevent local manufacturers from competing nationally and securing more business for the Flathead. Currently, manufacturers must fill an entire, 53-foot semi with product or ship using Less Than Truckload (LTL) freight, which is very costly. LTL shipping rates are 10-30 percent higher than full truckloads, eating into margins and making it expensive to operate in the Flathead.
Local businesses risk losing a competitive edge by passing this cost on to customers. Instead, most choose to absorb it, which limits their customer base and potential growth. If manufacturing is to thrive locally, better freight options are critical.
The Glacier Rail Park is an important part of solving the Flathead’s shipping dilemma. Rail offers the option of shipping in containers that are much smaller — as short as 20 feet and only 38 percent of the volume of a full semi truck — a far more reasonable space for a small manufacturer to fill.
More importantly, rail offers freight consolidation. Consolidation allows small manufacturers to combine their loads with others to major port destinations, where more shipping options exist to transfer freight to further and final destinations. This, combined with transloading, makes more affordable shipping possible in the Flathead.
Transloading provides rail access to manufacturers not located at the rail park, allowing them to deliver and pick up freight from a shared dock at the rail park. To date, Flathead Valley businesses have not had this option. As shipping solutions such as rail consolidation and transloading emerge, local manufacturers can expand. The potential impacts of this increase are significant. Not only would manufacturing help drive economic growth, it complements the strength of our tourism industry and helps increase the valley’s overall industrial base.
The Flathead offers so much, and can offer yet so much more. We must educate our community about opportunities in manufacturing, how it attracts more and better jobs, and how it would help strengthen Northwestern Montana’s position on the national stage. The Flathead is on the cusp of realizing the positive offerings that local manufacturing can provide, and our community needs to ensure its success.
The excitement of New Year’s Day 1892 is again in the air, and the railroad once more offers the potential for prosperity to the Flathead. It is important our community not miss the boat — or, in this case, the train. Our best years lie ahead.
Parson, of Kalispell, is director of manufacturing advancement for Flathead Valley Community College.