Growth Summit tackles tough housing and workforce issues

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

At the Growth Summit 2021, a new event hosted by the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, local experts discussed issues facing housing, transportation, child care and other critical components of the Kalispell economy. Flathead. They offered potential solutions, emphasizing again and again the interconnected nature of recent development.

The evidence for the growth trend is everywhere.

Kalispell City Manager Doug Russell said the city is awaiting the completion of 420 construction units already approved this year, in addition to a still countless number of units still awaiting approval.

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

And even Columbia Falls, long known as “the entry-level, blue-collar place in Flathead where people found an affordable place to live,” as planner Eric Mulcahy describes it, recently overtook Kalispell in terms of median house value.

The spillover effects of these changes are considerable and, in many sectors, problematic.

Housing stood out as a unifying issue addressed by almost all of the speakers during the half-day conference.

It became so acute that some of the Growth Summit panelists moved away from the colloquial term “affordable housing” and instead emphasized the need for “accessible housing”. The subtle difference is a nod to the fact that even homes considered “affordable” under current market conditions are not realistically achievable for many workers and families in the area.

As Joe Kola, market president of First Interstate Bank pointed out, a worker earning $ 15 an hour could afford rent of $ 650, according to the Housing Accessibility Index guidelines which suggest spending 25 % of his annual housing salary.

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

Even there, Lintz said potential tenants must wait for an opening on the waiting list. In the rest of the valley, vacancy is only 1%.

And even higher-level buyers can’t find any housing inventory. “We can bring in people at any of those salaries – $ 100,000, for example,” said Jerry Meerkatz, president and CEO of Montana West Economic Development. “[They are] certainly able to buy in the valley and they say, “I can’t find anything”. “

As a result, the panelists explained, workers are unable to relocate to the area or stay here, leaving opportunities in tourism, hospitality, childcare and other important industries.

THERE IS downstream effects on services and infrastructure, such as public transport, where there are not enough drivers, or parking lots and roads, which lack manpower to build improved structures.

It’s a cyclical web of problems, but local experts see solutions.

“We need to attract better paying jobs here,” Kola suggested.

One way to do this could be redevelopment and infill, like the kind Bill Goldberg is striving to undertake in the KM building in downtown Kalispell. The new owner of the historic building wants to install a new restaurant, several bars and accommodation in the former 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 that these local issues could be better addressed by redirecting funding sources to areas that need it most.

“There really needs to be a shift in support for public investment of public money in early childhood systems,” said Colette Box of the Discovery Developmental Center in Kalispell. “It will take a huge, huge, billion dollar investment in child care to make the system work for families.

Nic McKinley, CEO of tech company Verafi in Whitefish, had a similar perspective to Box’s, except that 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 into our state and then circulating it locally.”

“Most of the issues we talk about when we talk about pay, child care, housing… most of these issues can be solved by throwing money at them,” he said.

Journalist Bret Serbin can be reached at 758-4459 or [email protected]