[Editor’s note: The Daily Inter Lake continues a series of stories today that take a look ahead to 2020 about key local issues.]
By BRET ANNE SERBIN
Daily Inter Lake
The final train is expected to roll down the railroad tracks through downtown Kalispell by the start of the new year.
“It’s my understanding that by January 1 there will be no more use of the rail,” Kalispell Planning Director Jarod Nygren said.
It’s one of the last major milestones in a decade-long process to remove the tracks from downtown, relocate the rail users to the new Glacier Rail Park and replace the tracks with an approximately 2-mile long multi-use trail.
The tracks are expected to be out and the trail will be in place in the spring or summer of 2021. The ongoing use of rail service was the final obstacle to the long-awaited removal of the tracks.
Rail tenant CHS moved into Glacier Rail Park east of town in the fall, and now its neighbor, Northwest Drywall, is also wrapping up its downtown operations and relocating to the new industrial park.
“Our key component, getting those two businesses out, is done,” Nygren stated.
Relocating the rail tenants removes a literal roadblock that stood in the way of development for years.
“The city and FCEDA (Flathead County Economic Development Authority) started working together eight years ago to move CHS and Northwest Drywall because we couldn’t move the train tracks with them there,” explained Kim Morisaki, marketing director for FCEDA. “That’s what allowed us to remove the train tracks.”
The vision to redevelop the downtown landscape started two years before FCEDA and the city teamed up to move these businesses.
“The community development side has been going on for 10 years,” Nygren recalled. The ambitious idea was cemented with the adoption of the Kalispell Core Area Plan in 2012, and in 2015 the project received a $10 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER grant for transportation infrastructure from the Montana Department of Transportation.
The city and FCEDA have covered the additional costs, such as developing the rail park and relocating the rail users.
They have worked with KLG Engineering and Alta Design to design and implement the project, and they expect to reach the 90% design phase this spring.
Aside from the tracks themselves, the grain silos the railroad once served at Fifth Avenue West are one of the most noticeable markers of the shuttered downtown industrial site. CHS stopped using the silos and emptied out the last of their grain in October, but Montana West Economic Development President/CEO Jerry Meerkatz noted, “They’re not going away.”
FCEDA will take over and revitalize the former CHS property with the hope of eventually selling the site, although they don’t have a buyer lined up yet, according to Meerkatz. But while the steel piping around the property and its concrete foundation will be removed, the now-empty silos will remain in the historic location where they have stood since 1908.
The grain silo location is one of three sites FCEDA has taken ownership of as part of the overall collaborative effort to revitalize the downtown railroad corridor. Another is the 3.8-acre former CHS Agronomy building on Fourth Avenue East, which FCEDA will also revamp for a future buyer. They plan on dismantling the tank system from the former gas station and conducting an environmental study there, and Morisaki said multiple developers have already expressed interest in the property.
FCEDA also facilitated the sale of the former CHS store at 120 W. Idaho St. to Bridgewater, LLC, which plans on renovating the building into a multi-use office space. Morisaki said this is one of multiple “exciting remodels” that will be taking place as the Core Area becomes redeveloped, and she promised there are few more big projects planned along the trail that will be announced soon.
In the next five years, she said they expect private investment along the trail to be “equal to or more” than the money originally poured into the project.
“We’re continuing to work with developers,” Nygren added. “There’s a lot of potential development.”
Other planned developments include an array of potential attractions that may be added along the 2-mile stretch of trail, including an ice rink, a “splash pad” water park and art installations. They also expect to add trees, benches and improvements to some of the existing infrastructure along the trail, such as the east end trailhead.
Once the trail is completed, these projects will be next on the docket for the Core Area. Nygren said the city hopes a group will form to take ownership and develop these additions, much like the Whitefish Legacy Partners group that has worked on the Whitefish Trail.
“We’re going to build the framework,” he explained, but he said, “we want it to be built by them [the community].” There will be opportunities for individuals to purchase trees and benches along the new trail. “There’s tons of things for the community to get involved in,” Nygren added.
He also said in the next year, community members will finally be able to see concrete developments of the downtown tracks and trail after years of discussion and planning. “It’s exciting because we’ve had so much talk,” he said.
He acknowledged “people are wondering if it’s actually happening. They haven’t been able to see what we’ve been talking about since 2012.”
But he emphasized, “We’re working on it. There’s so many steps, but we’re getting down to the final ones.”
Morisaki agreed with his outlook and his observations of the project’s years of progress: “It’s been a marathon, but it’s worth it.”
Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at email@example.com or 758-4459.