Most communities quake at the thought of a highway bypassing their downtown. But in Kalispell, completion of the U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route is not only spurring millions of dollars in new development it’s also recharging interest in downtown.
A new report completed as an independent project by Montana Department of Transportation Missoula District Administrator Ed Toavs shows the Bypass has been a major catalyst for new investment. His analysis finds the original $135 million investment has spurred more than $1 billion in new development, taxes and job growth. While most of that growth has been centered north of town, city planners believe the impacts are more widespread…
“It’s the tip of the iceberg of what’s going to be happening in this community. Because with the Bypass going around we now have the ability to turn our focus on our downtown," Kalispell Planning Director Tom Jentz said. "So we have an ability to move traffic around. We’ve created a healthy commercial environment to the north. We’re in the process of redeveloping and re-envisioning our downtown area.”
“We’re a fast growing area. Flathead County is in the top 10% nationally from the period 1990 to 2015. And we’re on a pace that looks like we’ll carry on," added Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President Joe Unterreiner.
It's not just development on the north side of the city. Kalispell leaders say they’re seeing renewed interest in the downtown as well, including new opportunities such as the removal of rails, which will recover some 40-acres of land. The effort to move rail operations to the new Glacier Rail Park is one of several projects underway to re-work Kalispell’s core. From the brewery to other specialty business and shops, downtown has a more vibrant feel than it did a decade ago.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t still problems to tackle. Some of the streets connecting to the Bypass are busy and need work and eventually, MDT needs to finish widening the south end of the Bypass to four lanes, leading to more growth. But community leaders say cooperation and vision will help.
“We’re not going to have multiple driveways forever along this corridor. This corridor is protected as a moving transportation corridor. We planned for commercial in a couple of key areas at some of the interchanges. But the route itself is protected and preserved from that standpoint. Because the driveways, the access points, those are the things that ultimately slow down and congest, and just strangle any roadway system we have," Jentz said. “Because of the Bypass finally coming to fruition now we have that chance to re-invest in our downtown.”
Kalispell leaders say the data in Toavs’ report is going to be very valuable to gauge future projects and investment. And Toavs says his colleagues in MDT are already looking at how his modeling could help with other highway projects, including expansion in Helena, Bozeman and a long-discussed bypass in Billings.