Tale of two cities 

Will local retailers survive Kalispell’s box stores?

Art Rasmussen stands in the doorway of Kelly-Main Street Furniture to greet early-bird holiday shoppers on the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 17. A line stretches down an entire Kalispell city block waiting to get into the store, which is going out of business after 97 years and selling off its remaining furniture at sale prices.

On Wednesday, the first day of the going-out-of-business sale, more than 1,000 people visit the store—300 within the first hour. By Thursday the crowd has tapered off somewhat but is still much larger than usual.

At 89, Rasmussen, the Kelly-Main Street owner before he passed the business along to his son-in-law, remembers his first day in the furniture business in 1937.

“This was my first job,” he says. “Les Shryock, the owner of Main Street furniture, got me started,” before Main Street and Kelly Furniture merged.

“Welcome to America,” Rasmussen says, greeting some newcomers with a smile. Soon after, Kalispell’s new city manager, Jim Patrick, walks through the door. “Can’t we convince you to stay?” he asks Rasmussen.

Meanwhile, just a few miles down Highway 93, contractors hoist letters up onto the marquee for an incoming Lowe’s home improvement store. As Kelly-Main Street closes the doors that have been open since 1907, some are wondering what the historic downtown Kalispell of the future will look like.

“It isn’t the same town anymore,” Rasmussen says. “Many, many changes.” When downtown business owner Pat Bailey recently closed up Mountain Aire Music, he lamented that new developments at Reserve Street and Highway 93—particularly Borders Books and Music—had taken away his business. Borders is located adjacent to another furniture store, Pier 1 Imports.

Roger Siblerud, co-owner of Kelly-Main Street, says the larger furniture chain had an effect on business, but that his store remained profitable. He just wants more time for hunting, fishing and traveling, he says.

Today, retail development along a strip of Highway 93 that was once open land is moving at a rapid pace. On the heels of Mountain View Plaza store openings by Target, Pier 1, Borders, Home Depot and TJ Maxx, the other side of 93—now called the Spring Prairie Center—is being developed around anchor tenants Lowe’s, which plans to open its home improvement store early in the new year, and Costco. Other corporate retailers are expected to join. On the day that Kelly-Main Street’s going-out-of-business sale began, Signature Theaters, which owns both of downtown Kalispell’s movie theaters, announced it will be closing the old Strand Theater and erecting a 14-theater movie megaplex next to Target, in a development projected to include restaurants and retail space as well.

“That north end is just growing like crazy,” says Kalispell Lowe’s Store Manager Ken Sechser.

While the new Highway 93 developments bring jobs to the valley—Lowe’s alone will employ approximately 150 people, Sechser says, and will buy local timber from Plum Creek—they may also threaten the vitality of Kalispell’s downtown retailers. Siblerud says Kalispell’s center of commerce is “definitely” moving away from downtown, which is of particular concern to Judy Larson, owner of Insty Prints in Kalispell and Polson and the chairwoman of the Kalispell Downtown Business Improvement District.

“We’re going to have to redevelop our downtown and figure out what is going to survive down here,” Larson says.

Larson is counting on HyettPalma, an Alexandria, Va.-based consulting firm specializing in the revitalization of older downtown areas, to help guide the city.

“There is a market for retail down here,” Larson maintains. “It just has to be something unique and different.”

Larson says that shoppers aren’t being drawn from downtown retailers to new developments by prices, but more by the perception of convenience.

“When you pull into a Wal-Mart parking lot, you can see the building, whereas downtown you might have to walk around a corner. Parking seems to be what everybody points to, but whether that is actually the problem I don’t know.”

Currently, downtown Kalispell remains the largest center of employment in the valley, accounting for more than 2,500 jobs.

In order to continue to attract consumers, Larson says, downtown businesses may want to consider opening for business on the weekends or hosting more events that encourage shopping, such as Art Walk.

Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, says investment is going on not just on the strip along 93, but downtown as well, pointing to millions of dollars in renovations and/or expansion at downtown’s Glacier Bank, First Interstate Bank and First National Bank of Montana.

“I think what’s happening is that the area around Reserve and 93 is becoming kind of a retail center, but in terms of a financial center, I still think that’s downtown Kalispell,” Unterreiner says.

Unterreiner says there’s little the city can do about the effects of new box stores on downtown retail.

“What choice does an area have?” he says. “These guys are seeing opportunity and they’re making a decision to come. I can’t envision how you begin to tell businesses they aren’t welcome here.”

But how will Kalispell know when corporate growth reaches the nebulous threshold known as “enough?”

“That’s a good philosophical question,” Unterreiner says. “But I don’t have an answer for you.”

Those interested in adding their input to downtown Kalispell’s community-wide five-year plan are encouraged to attend a meeting with HyettPalma consultants Tuesday, Dec. 7, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom of Kalispell’s Outlaw Inn.

“That’s going to be a very important time for everyone to come and voice their opinions about the heart of our community,” Larson says. “It’s on everyone’s mind. It’s a passionate thing for a lot of people.” mike@missoulanews.com

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