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A choice between local housing or more VRBOs

by Daily Inter Lake
| June 19, 2022 12:00 AM

The sky's the limit for the proposed downtown Kalispell parking garage.

Last week, the developers behind the planned Charles Hotel on Main Street met with the Kalispell City Council to discuss the option of adding approximately 70 housing units on top of the project’s related parking structure, bringing the building height to eight stories.

The four-story garage would include 250 parking spaces and 7,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. In addition to housing, the developer is also looking to retain ownership of the parking structure, rather than turn it over to the city.

Councilors were intrigued by the proposal for both the housing and private ownership of the garage, and now face a critical decision point that could shape the downtown landscape for years to come: Let the housing units be developed at market rate, or negotiate to ensure some of the units are set aside as so-called workforce affordable?

We’ve seen firsthand the outcome of the former time and again in destination cities across Montana (ahem, Whitefish and Bozeman). Developers scoop up prime downtown property to build retail on the bottom with “housing” on top. In almost every instance, the “housing” is turned into luxury short-term rentals that serve wealthy out-of-town visitors or second homeowners.

While this formula works out great for developers and investors, it can quickly change the character of a downtown for the worse, at the expense of the working people who truly define a place.

Thankfully, there is an alternative.

Kalispell City Council could choose to be bold and break this trend by working with the hotel developers and designating tax increment finance funds to the project in exchange for a guaranteed supply of workforce housing units.

Working locals living in downtown Kalispell within walking distance of all the surrounding amenities — or more VRBOs for more tourists? That’s the choice facing the council.

Of course, this project alone won’t solve the city’s housing crisis — nor is it solely the government’s problem to fix. But striking this deal would be a step in the right direction with relatively little public impact or government involvement.

With today’s soaring rent and unattainable homeownership, locals are scrapping just to stay in the place they have always called home. It’d be a shame to let this opportunity slip by.

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