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Columbia Falls community group disbands

by Richard Hanners
| December 19, 2012 10:00 PM

A chapter in the history of philanthropy in Columbia Falls ended last week when the board of directors of First Best Place voted to dissolve the group.

The nonprofit community group’s board held an impromptu but official meeting on Dec. 12 and, after some discussion, agreed to start the process of dissolving its nonprofit status with the state and the IRS.

“There’s a still a need for strong community support and involvement in developing quality-of-life amenities in Columbia Falls,” board member and North Valley Hospital CEO Jason Spring said. “It’s unfortunate that First Best Place couldn’t be sustained financially, but I’m optimistic that other organizations will take up some of the causes and assist in continuing the efforts of FBP.”

The nonprofit formed in mid-2006 under the name First Best Place Task Force — a spin-off from the popular phrase “last best place” and founder Dave Renfrow’s position that Columbia Falls was historically the first city in the Flathead Valley.

The group was soon involved in a number of important community projects, from hosting summer farmers markets on Nucleus Avenue and promoting a community garden at River’s Edge Park to supporting the refurbishing of the historic Red Bridge for pedestrian use.

Its biggest project by far was establishing a community center at the 47-year-old former bank building on Nucleus Avenue that First Best Place acquired in 2008 for $465,000. The group’s ambitious goal was to raise more than $1 million to remodel Glacier Discovery Square and move the county’s branch library into the facility.

But monthly bills proved to be a problem for the all-volunteer organization. Gas, electric, phone, water and sewer bills ran to more than $900 per month on top of the $2,000 monthly payment on the interest for the mortgage.

Income from renting the facility to groups, annual gala events and the occasional private donation were just enough to keep Discovery Square open, board president Hilary Hutcheson said, but the board felt it could no longer keep asking the community for financial help without showing some progress toward its goal.

Hutcheson said the group handed over the deed to the building to Whitefish Credit Union on Oct. 26 to avoid foreclosure. The group formally moved out of the facility about three weeks ago.

“Many of the daily community events that were formerly held at Discovery Square are still ongoing at North Valley Hospital’s Community Center on Nucleus Avenue,” Spring said. “North Valley Hospital will continue to support these activities in the interim while we look for longer-term solutions through organizations like the Columbia Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.”

First Best Place has sent checks to groups for money the nonprofit has been holding for them, Hutcheson said — $628 to the Gateway 2 Glacier business group in the Canyon, $475 to the group running the farmers market and $648 to the group running the community garden.

Hutcheson also remained hopeful about prospects that the Flathead County Library System will acquire the former bank building and raise the needed money to turn it into a viable community center.