“This is truly a transformative moment,” Kalispell Mayor Mark Johnson said last week, speaking to more than 200 people gathered in a dusty, wide-open lot tucked along the eastern outskirts of town. “This is the moment in history 50 years from now we will look back on and realize the pain and sacrifices we made were well worth the effort.”
The bold declaration on Aug. 22 set the stage for a groundbreaking ceremony several years in the making, following countless public and private meetings. It also set the tone for a seismic event that could reverberate across Kalispell and dramatically reshape the landscape in the years to come. The Glacier Rail Park is surfacing. A day after the mayor’s remarks, Kalispell-based construction firm LHC officially began developing the 40-acre property between Whitefish Stage Road and U.S. Highway 2 into a centralized railroad hub for the entire Flathead Valley. The former McElroy-Wilkins gravel pit is playing a pivotal role in a much larger vision: a community revitalization plan that aims to redevelop public infrastructure and attract private investment in the core area of Kalispell.
Among the crowd who arrived to celebrate the historic groundbreaking were U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and administrators from a large lineup of state and federal agencies, as well as BNSF Railway, all echoing Johnson’s sentiments and applauding Kalispell’s collaborative strategy.
Flathead County Economic Development Authority began devising the rail park nearly a decade ago and acquired the land in the spring of 2012 with the help of $1.14 million in federal funds. At the same time, the city of Kalispell began collecting community input to craft a strategy for revitalizing the historic core area once the railroad tracks were relocated.
In the years since, instead of gathering dust, the two projects simultaneously gained momentum. On its third attempt, the city successfully landed a $10 million federal transportation grant that is fueling development of the rail park, and a year ago celebrated the completion of the U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route, a separate yet similar project that is also creating cascading change in one of Montana’s fastest-growing cities.