Seven-Year Saga Ends in Celebration as County Opens New Agency on Aging

by Dillon Tabish

The jovial tunes from the 1930s Steinway Model baby grand piano resonated throughout the new Flathead County south campus building last week as crowd members enjoyed cake and conversation. Amid the celebration, the smile on Jane Seward’s face was visible from across the large room.

“This is wonderful,” she said.

Seward was among the nearly 100 people who gathered Oct. 13 for the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the new Agency on Aging and Kalispell Senior Center, both of which are now housed in the county’s latest campus addition on 11th Street West near downtown Kalispell. U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke applauded the facility — “This is what happens when we all work together” — while representatives from U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines similarly echoed praise for the important site and services it provides.

In addition to the AOA and Kalispell Senior Center, the new south campus building also now houses the county’s IT department, space for the Flathead City-County Health Department, and the county’s maintenance department.

“This is a dream come true,” Dale Lauman, a former Flathead County commissioner who helped spearhead the new facility, told the crowd. “It’s an awesome facility. I think we have the best in the state of Montana.”

The lively gathering marked the conclusion of a seven-year effort to develop a new, centrally located facility that serves the growing population of seniors in the community. In Flathead County, which stands among Montana’s grayest communities, seniors will make up a quarter of the population by 2020. The AOA, which serves area residents 60 years and older with a variety of programs, including Meals on Wheels, transportation, senior home repair and legal services, has already seen increased demand in recent years. The average number of residents receiving independent living services increased from 319 to 435 from 2014 to 2015, and the average number of residents regularly receiving meals on wheels grew from 451 to 462, according to county statistics.

For those involved, making this dream come true was not without its ups and downs. County officials and residents lobbied for a new facility as the former site on Kelly Road became increasingly crowded, and plans were drawn up for several site options, including the fairgrounds. In 2013, Flathead County commissioners Gary Krueger and Pam Holmquist balked at selecting a new site and rejected a $450,000 grant, leading to uproar among senior residents who felt they were being underappreciated. Lauman, who did not seek re-election and ended his term as commissioner in 2012, continued championing the new AOA site, along with others, including former Commissioner Cal Scott, and in mid-2014 the Flathead County Commission announced its intention to go ahead with the idea and add it to the new $7 million building on the county’s south campus.

At last week’s celebration, both Krueger and Holmquist applauded the efforts of everyone involved and the end result.

“What a wonderful facility,” Holmquist said. “We’re pleased with what happened here.”

When asked afterward if he would do anything differently if he could go back three years, Krueger acknowledged that he might.

“I do agree if you could see all of the good things that come in the future, a lot of the decisions the county commissioners make would be easier,” he said. “But we don’t have that crystal ball, so as the commission works through an issue, some commissioners come to a plan or a thought quicker than others, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s just how we do things. In the end, this has happened. I believe every commissioner who looks at this says it’s great. All those past things are a fog of memory.”

He added, “Today we’re going to celebrate this. But it is just a facility that Flathead County provides. What will make this the whole package is how our staff and our Agency on Aging and how our community members come together to make this the very best.”

From Seward’s vantage, she sat back smiling and saw friends and other residents coming together as an integral part of the community, and she saw new opportunities for them to thrive.

“There’s already more people coming in to eat than at the old place. They’re all enjoying it,” said Seward, who delivers Meals on Wheels twice a week to fellow senior residents in need. “Everything here is first-class.”