Dozens gathered in a dusty lot off Whitefish Stage Road on Tuesday morning to celebrate the long-anticipated groundbreaking of the Glacier Rail and Industrial Park. As Kalispell Mayor Mark Johnson kicked off the ceremony, he described the project as the first step in “transforming the city of Kalispell.” This, he said, would be a moment in history the town would look back on 50 years from now with pride.
The rail park has been in the planning stage since 2010, but the community as a whole has been pushing for its creation for the last 15 years, according to Flathead County Economic Development Authority Board Chairman Justin Pearson.
Though many people were involved in the process to get the project underway, two women were repeatedly recognized by each of the event’s speakers as the movers and shakers behind the operation.
Community Development Manager Katharine Thompson and Kim Morisaki of Montana West Economic Development and Flathead County Economic Development Authority worked in collaboration with Planning and Building Director Tom Jentz to secure the grant funding.
Together, the trio worked for the greater part of a decade to set into motion one of the largest redevelopment projects in Downtown Kalispell’s recent history.
“We started this work in 2010 and it’s been like we’re running a marathon,” Thompson said. “It’s very exciting to be nearing the finish line now.”
After applying three separate times for the federal TIGER grant funding for the project, the city was finally approved in 2015. The $10 million grant will allow for the construction of the park, the first step in a two-step process that Johnson said will reinvent downtown Kalispell.
The rail park will consist of a 40-acre property with rail access to serve rail-reliant businesses and will create 20 business lots on the east side of Whitefish Stage Road, north of East Oregon Street and west of East Oregon Lane.
Construction of the rail park will allow for the removal of the railroad tracks downtown. Once the tracks have been removed, the so-called Core Area of Kalispell will be redesign to accommodate biking and walking trails leading through the downtown area with the potential for new businesses, multi-family housing and other properties to move into the area.
LHC Inc. received the $11.2 million bid for construction of the rail park, up to 62 percent of which will be funded by the TIGER grant. Westside/Core Area tax-increment financing will fund the remainder of the project.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., took the stage during the groundbreaking ceremony to thank both the team members and commend the “unwavering community insistence” on making the project happen.
“We’ve dealt with a lot of communities in Montana over the last 10 years,” Tester said. “But we have never seen a team in this community more committed to a project.”
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Representative Patrick Davis also congratulated the team and the city for making the project possible.
“You built this. This is yours,” he said to the crowd.
Montana Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley took the stage next, saying, “Kalispell gets it done. Congratulations.”
Once the speakers had finished, Johnson invited key team members who made the day possible to grab a shovel and “start the transformation of Kalispell.”
The team lined up, gripped their shovels and, on the count of three, broke ground on the Glacier Rail Park with a cloud of dust.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.