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We’re all in this town together

| December 4, 2022 12:00 AM

It was the last thing I wanted to do, leaving work to go anywhere but home in a driving snow. I headed up U.S. 2 from downtown anyway, to the Community Engagement Study on Growth Sentiment, organized by the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.

As I slowed to take the left turn for the meeting held at Flathead Electric Cooperative, an angry driver swerved around me, horn blaring — a perfect cue for the subject at hand. More people in the valley means more traffic, more people making left turns, more impatient drivers.

The consultant hired by Discover Kalispell, Cathy Ritter of Better Destinations, drilled down with us participants on the benefits and impacts of growth. While ostensibly touching on tourism, the talk generally came to be about more people in the valley period, and how we grow from here.

Just as our forebears found this place, so will others, either for vacation or as residents.

As one attendee noted, there’s almost no discernible tourism season in Kalispell anymore. To her, town feels crowded all year long.

Fortunately, our group — ranging from an architect to a potter and long-term residents to newer arrivals — agreed on a couple of things right away: Change is inevitable, and shutting the door isn’t realistic.

Pointing out that Kalispell is the fastest growing micropolitan city in the U.S., Ritter asked, “What kind of community do you want to be in 10 to 20 years?” We gamely waded into the murkiness of “Montana values.”

After observing that Kalispell is “where people go to shop” from a wide radius including southern Alberta, Ritter mentioned a tax as a way to benefit from the commercial activity.

At the chamber’s Grand Event earlier in November, attendees received a handout titled Flathead Valley Economic Dashboard. The provided statistics related to such sectors as labor, tourism and housing/real estate.

According to the data, the city appears on track to issue permits for fewer housing units in 2022 than in 2021, and closed home sales declined 27 percent in September from August. Jessica Johnston of the chamber explained, “Building spiked in 2021. It’s lower now because everything’s so expensive.” As for the cooling real estate sales, she said, “Nobody wants to move in the winter.”

Maybe we don’t have growing pains, just serious frustration issues. One participant in the Growth Sentiment meeting complained about unfriendly neighbors, and another hit on the idea that we should all have more block parties. Sometimes just speaking up, and being heard, are all that’s needed to ease tension.

As Flathead County transitions from a popular seasonal destination to one of the most populated counties in Montana, we’ll have to affirm and manage all that’s involved in the change of status. From roads to sidewalks, and library services to septage treatment, we all share the pain that comes with living in an attractive place.

Ritter smiled at the block-party idea and wrapped up the meeting: “We’re creating a better community by creating a better community.”

I wished the angry driver from earlier could have been there. I’ve since found a magical bumper sticker. It says, “Come at me with compassion bro.”

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at mdavis@dailyinterlake.com