Growth Summit tackles tough issues of housing, workforce

·4 min read

May 18—The Flathead Valley is growing, as are the challenges facing its residents, leaders and business owners.

At the Growth Summit 2021, a new event hosted Tuesday by the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, local experts discussed issues confronting the housing, transportation, childcare and other essential components of the Flathead's economy. They offered some potential solutions, highlighting again and again the interconnected nature of the recent development.

Evidence of the growth trend is everywhere.

Kalispell City Manager Doug Russell said the city is waiting for 420 already-approved building units to go into place this year, in addition to a yet-untold number of units still awaiting approval.

In Whitefish, the number of short-term rentals registered within city limits ballooned from four in 2016 to 210 today, according to City Manager Dana Smith.

And even Columbia Falls, long known as "the entry-level, the blue-collar spot within the Flathead that people were finding an affordable place to live" as described by Planner Eric Mulcahy, recently surpassed Kalispell in terms of median home value.

The ripple effects of these changes are far-reaching, and in many industries, problematic.

Housing stood out as a unifying issue addressed by nearly every presenter at the half-day conference.

It's become so acute that some of the panelists at the Growth Summit pivoted away from the familiar term "affordable housing" and instead highlighted a need for "attainable housing." The subtle difference is a nod to the reality that even homes considered "affordable" under current market conditions realistically are not attainable for many of the working people and families in the region.

As pointed out by Joe Kola, market president of First Interstate Bank, a worker earning $15 an hour could afford $650 in rent, per the Housing Affordability Index guidelines that suggest spending 25% of one's annual wage on housing.

Nikki Lintz, a representative from Entrust Property Solutions, said the cheapest efficiency unit at The Highline Apartments in Columbia Falls — heralded as the valley's beacon of affordability — starts at $700 per month.

Even there, Lintz said potential renters must wait for an opening on the waitlist. In the rest of the valley, vacancy is at a mere 1%.

And even buyers in a higher-tier bracket can't find any housing inventory. "We can bring people in at any of those wages — $100,000, for instance," said Jerry Meerkatz, president and CEO of Montana West Economic Development. "[They are] certainly capable of buying in the valley and they go 'I can't find anything.'"

As a result, the panelists explained, workers aren't able to move to the area or stay here, leaving openings in tourism, hospitality, childcare and other important industries.

THERE ARE downstream effects on services and infrastructure, too, such as public transportation, where there aren't enough drivers, or parking and roads, which lack the laborers to build improved structures.

It's a cyclical web of issues, but local experts see some solutions.

"We need to attract higher-paying jobs here," suggested Kola.

One way to do that could be redevelopment and infill, like the kind Bill Goldberg is endeavoring to undertake at the KM Building in downtown Kalispell. The new owner of the historic building wants to put a new restaurant, multiple bars and housing units into the old mercantile.

"My real goal is to get residential units downtown," said Goldberg, who was primarily drawn to Kalispell for the possibility of growing vertically in the city.

Others believe these local problems could be better addressed by redirecting funding sources to the areas that need them most.

"There really needs to be a switch in support in public investment of tax dollars in early childhood systems," said Colette Box from Kalispell's Discovery Developmental Center. "It's going to take a large, huge, billion-dollar investment in childcare to make the system work for families."

Nic McKinley, CEO of Verafi technology company in Whitefish, had a similar view to Box's, except he focused on the private sector rather than public funding.

In his keynote address, McKinley urged the local business community to "start siphoning money from the rest of the country back into our state and then circulating it locally."

"Most of the problems that we talk about when we talk about wages, we talk about childcare, we talk about housing...most of those problems can be solved by throwing money at them," he said.

Reporter Bret Serbin may be reached at 758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com

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