‘This is going to change Kalispell’

Tester lauds effort to get $10 million grant

by Seaborn Larson

Kalispell kept the celebrations coming on Friday in the presence of elected officials and business leaders under a rain-soaked tent at the CHS grain elevator on Center Street.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., keynoted the event that officially announced Kalispell’s reception of the $10 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant. The grant will be used to remove the rail lines paralleling Center Street and build a new rail park on the east side of town.

“I don’t want to overstate this, but it’s a fact that this is a transformational grant, this is going to change Kalispell,” Tester said.

“It’s going to provide more quality space for retail, recreation space and housing, it’s got so many options. You’ll also move the industrial business out of town, and those two changes are very, very important.”

Kalispell Mayor Mark Johnson kicked off the event by introducing speakers and thanking the team that developed the Glacier Rail Park and Core Area plans from the beginning stages in 2010.

Katharine Thompson, Kalispell Community Development manager, and Kim Morisaki, Business Development and Special Projects Manager for Montana West Economic Development, were in tears at the official announcement from U.S. Department of Transportation Undersecretary Peter Rogoff.

“Behind every lucky group of elected officials is a great team,” Johnson said. “The future generations of Kalispell will owe a debt of gratitude to Katharine Thompson and Kim Morisaki.”

Tester spoke about the leadership involved in securing the TIGER Grant.

“It’s a big win not only for Kalispell but for all of Northwestern Montana and the state of Montana,” Tester said. “To build on this city’s great strengths and to build on the economy, you need leadership and you have great leadership”

Tester said he was immediately sold on the project when he first heard the pitch four years ago. Tester said he was in U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s offices for days, explaining that the Kalispell community was one of the hardest hit by the economic downturn in Montana. In the end, he credited the teamwork behind the project as the winning ingredient.

“Everybody knows that money in Washington is hard to come by,” Tester said. “The folks that have worked on this project probably know that TIGER money might be the hardest money to come by.”

“People work together in Montana and we could learn something about that in D.C.”

Rogoff, on behalf of Foxx and President Barack Obama, made the official public announcement of the grant. He also reminded those in attendance about the fierce competitive nature of the grant process.

“It’s a brutal competition nationwide,” Rogoff said. “You should be extraordinarily proud of what you’ve accomplished here. There will be not only a better quality of life downtown but more jobs as a result of the industrial rail park we’re going to build through this project.”

Rogoff said Kalispell’s success was three-pronged: the increased quality of life and number of jobs through the project; the coordination and organization of the players involved in the application; and Tester’s arm-twisting at the office of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Montana Lt. Gov. Angela McLean thanked Tester, Rogoff and everyone involved from Kalispell for the support of the grant application.

“This award creates jobs for the implementation for the Rail Park and train project, not only benefiting local Kalispell community but will increase job opportunities for those wishing to stay and work right here in Kalispell,” she said.

McLean specifically thanked Thompson and Morisaki for sacrificing their extra hours and also spoke about the benefits from the upcoming bike and walking path that will replace the tracks and promote a new route for pedestrians.

“It’s a good day across the entire state of Montana,” she said.

Montana Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley made his second appearance in Kalispell this month to congratulate Kalispell, BNSF Railway, Watco and Tester on securing the grant.

“When it comes to transportation, our state has no better advocate than Jon Tester,” Tooley said. “But this wasn’t easy. Once again, Kalispell is proven just how patient and perseverant they can be.”

Tooley said the increased mobility through Kalispell will provide a safer environment for transportation. He pledged support from the state department to the project once construction commences.

Tooley previously was in Kalispell for groundbreaking on the final segment of the U.S. 93 bypass.

Lyle Mitchell from the Flathead County Economic Development Authority said it has been a long process since the early stages of the plan. He thanked former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, who awarded the group the first grant to purchase the former McElroy & Wilken gravel pit – acreage that will become the new rail park.

Zak Anderson of BNSF praised Thompson and Morisaki for their tenacity in the process so far. He said the railroad company is equally invested in the future rail park.
“Movement is a good thing in Montana. That means we’re moving more product to the rest of the world,” Anderson said.

CHS General Manager Mark Lalum echoed Anderson’s anticipation about the upcoming project. The 1908 stamp on the grain bins outside the tent was a reminder that the current facility was built on the edge of Kalispell, he said, and is in the center of town. Lalum said the change would provide a safer environment for the agricultural business, as well as Kalispell residents.

“Let’s face it, an elevator in the middle of town is not the best, nor the safest thing to have,” Lalum said. “With 2,500 semis coming through, it has always made me nervous. I think this is truly for Kalispell, and our agricultural community, a win-win.”

CHS plans to relocate its Center Street operation to the rail park.

Ted Kadau of Watco Companies, which leases the railroad line between Columbia Falls and Kalispell, said this project has arrived at a monumental time for Watco – the 10-year anniversary. He said Watco officials are also anticipating the economic development opportunities that will come with the new rail park.

“We’re here to provide help and support in anyway we can,” Kadau said.

U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke made a surprise appearance at the event, relaying the message of teamwork through the entire process leading up to the grant announcement.
“We’re all Montanans and we’re all Americans,” the Whitefish Republican said. “Those who know me know that I’m neither red, or blue, I’m red, white and blue. And I can tell you we get a lot more done when we work together.”

After everyone’s time to speak, Tester said all the infrastructure changes in Kalispell, from the bypass project, to Spring Prairie retail development to the Glacier Rail Park and Core Area redevelopment are building toward economic strength.

“It’s a quality-of-life issue, in a place where quality of life is pretty damn good already,” he said. “You combine all those projects with this, and it’s going to help this area withstand the next recession.”