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MWED looks to update economic strategy

by ADRIAN KNOWLER
Daily Inter Lake | May 7, 2023 12:00 AM

Montana West Economic Development is seeking input on the challenges and opportunities facing the county as it updates its economic plan designed to guide economic growth here.

The Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy is a five-year economic plan, and was last published in 2017.

At a recent meeting in Kalispell, residents and business leaders said they felt that the economic and social challenges identified in the previous plan have remained or gotten worse as Flathead County undergoes the most rapid population growth in the state, according to recently released census data.

High on the list of challenges they’d like to see addressed in the updated plan were issues such as affordable housing, access to childcare, a shortage of reliable public transit options, and underinvestment in mental health services and education. Also mentioned were the county’s lack of a septic treatment facility, and the belief that the increase in short-term rentals and vacation homes were destroying a local sense of community.

Those in attendance described what they see as out-of-touch legislation from Helena, a lack of county leadership, and a lack of willingness to come together between city governments and residents to solve county-wide problems as obstacles to addressing the challenges.

Many felt that the challenges identified in the 2017 plan still apply today, and that some have been exacerbated by rapid population growth since that time. The 2017 document identified the lack of affordable housing, sprawling development and unregulated growth, low wages and unaffordable childcare as local weaknesses.

Attendees called for increased public transit and a county-wide housing plan including a needs assessment as steps forward in the next chapter needed in the county’s growth.

Planning consultant Kate McMahon led the meeting, and was responsible for writing the last two economic development documents in 2017 and 2012.

She pointed to federal funding for projects such as the Parkline Trail and the ongoing expansion of Glacier Park International Airport as only possible because of last cycle’s planning documents that were already in place when grants became available.

Montana West Economic Development President Christy Cummings Dawson said that updating the strategy is critical as Flathead County looks for solutions to housing, workforce and childcare challenges.

“[A development strategy is] required for Economic Development Administration grant programs, but it’s also good to get a snapshot of how Flathead County is doing and identify needs and get community input,” Cummings Dawson said.

Redeveloping Kalispell’s downtown rail corridor into the multi-use Parkline trail was identified as a goal of the previous plan, and the fact that it was in the document helped secure federal funding for portions of the project.

Federal grant funding was used to relocate agricultural company CHS and Northwest Drywall and Roofing Supply — at the time the two remaining rail-served businesses in downtown Kalispell — to the Glacier Rail Park in Evergreen, a hurdle that had to be overcome before BNSF Railway would sell the land, according to Cummings Dawson.

Promoting tourism was also a priority in the 2017 plan, and one that Cummings Dawson has felt was successful based on increased tourism numbers in the last few years.

Cummings Dawson wants to see continued diversification of the local economy and foster the development of the area's technical and high-tech manufacturing business.

She pointed to the relocation of software company GL Solutions from Oregon to Flathead County as an example of the kind of businesses that she’d like to see set up shop in the valley.

Community meetings will be held in Whitefish on May 8, in Bigfork on May 11, in Lakeside/Somers on May 12, in Columbia Falls on May 16 and in Evergreen on May 17. All information on the meetings and locations can be found at dobusinessinmontana.com.

Montana West Economic Development will also be putting out a survey for people who cannot attend the in-person meetings.

Reporter Adrian Knowler can be reached at 758-4407 or aknowler@dailyinterlake.com.

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Glacier Rail Park in Evergreen on Tuesday, May 2. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)