Volunteers are scrambling across Flathead County in a long-shot, 11th-hour petition drive to stop the giant Glacier Mall project. It’s the climax to a years-long dispute pitting private property rights against planned growth here on the road to Glacier National Park. For a small-town ruckus, a lot seems to ride on the outcome. If the mall—proposed as Montana’s largest—is built, critics contend it will clog traffic, spawn a soulless and demoralizing commercial sprawl, suck the life out of downtown Kalispell and turn the city into a kind of New West company town.
Call it Buckeyville, after James “Bucky” Wolford, the Tennessee college football hero-turned-real estate developer who has come to Montana, like the take-and-run land barons of yesteryear, with money and grandiose plans.
Wolford would plop down his $150 million mega-mall and big-box “power center” on 420 acres of wheat and alfalfa fields just beyond Kalispell’s northern border.
Critics say it’s not likely to create many new jobs. But among other obvious setbacks to enlightened town planning, it would all but ensure the closing of the city’s existing mall, located inside the downtown business district, and lure stores and offices away from Main Street.
Wolford didn’t respond to the Independent’s request for an interview, but to his hometown newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he boasted about his plans for Kalispell: “We’ll be the only game in town. We’ll have a captive audience for 40 years or so.”
While there’s some evidence that ordinary people are mostly against the mall, the Powers That Be are largely on the Bucky bandwagon.
The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the development. The Flathead County Commission, which takes a decidedly laissez-faire approach to planning and zoning, voted 3-zip two days before Christmas to grant Wolford the zoning change he needs.
“We need to let the market work,” says Kalispell City Councilman Bob Herron, who won election by three votes in 2003 on a slate of Wolford-backed candidates. “I believe in free enterprise. That’s the main reason for my support for this project.”
As for the mall’s opponents, Herron says, “Some of their attitudes appear to be socialistic.”
And that might have been the last word on the subject if it weren’t for the grassroots group of die-hards now fighting back. Their goals:
• Derail the mall with a lawsuit contending that the commission violated state law by ignoring written public comments against the project. The tally was 2,507 comments against the mall and 1,861 in favor, but who’s counting? Not the commissioners, who admitted they hadn’t sorted through all those pesky public opinions.
• Block the mall for at least two years by collecting protest signatures from 1,148 (40 percent) of the property owners in the project’s general vicinity—not an easy task, since volunteers must go door-to-door in the Montana winter and the law gives them only one month.
• Force a public referendum on the mall in the June elections by persuading 7,200 registered voters to sign petitions by March 5. The problem here is that the county wants to restrict the eligible petition signers. The county maintains that voters in its three incorporated cities—Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls—can’t sign, even though the economies of these towns stand to lose the most. The dispute is the topic of a pending lawsuit. A judge is expected to rule next week. If the county wins, then fewer signatures will be required—only 4,300. But those rural voters are harder to track down and they typically take a hard line on property rights so, once reached, opponents fear, they’re likely to sympathize with Wolford.
The nerve center for the anti-mall forces is the cluttered downtown Kalispell office of Bill Goodman. People bustle in and out turning in petitions. Zoning maps hang on the walls. Over each neighborhood, Goodman has scribbled names of volunteers. He says a couple hundred volunteers are already on the streets. Goodman’s a real estate developer himself. Asked to explain the apparent irony, he says, “I’m pro-growth. I just don’t see this as growth. I see this as cannibalizing our economy. If everybody moves out there and Bucky owns it all, how does that help us? When I think of Bucky, I think of a carpetbagger.”
Kalispell just spent $2 million sprucing up its downtown by widening sidewalks and adding decorative light poles and planters. Up the highway, Whitefish, too, is worried about losing stores and businesses to Glacier Mall. Whitefish has invested heavily in a performing arts center, a skating rink and other civic projects to make its downtown vibrant.
Only last spring, a report by the University of Montana concluded, not surprisingly, that small-town charm and natural beauty are the chief economic assets of fast-growing Flathead County. The report warned that hodgepodge development threatens to degrade these assets.
Surveys show even most Flathead business leaders lament the loss of open space to commercial sprawl. At the same time, more people say they’re tired of shopping in malls filled with the same stores they can find everywhere. Many say they’d rather shop in quaint, one-of-a-kind stores downtown.
“Should we burn up more open space in the name of one man’s profit while we lose things that are important to our community and our values? That doesn’t make sense to me,” Whitefish Mayor Andy Feury says. “We don’t need to be Everywhere, USA.”