KALISPELL — The Flathead County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to cancel a buy/sell agreement for the purchase of the Weyerhaeuser property in Columbia Falls as the potential site for a new detention center.
“The commissioner’s decision was made after hearing from county and community stakeholders, including the public to not proceed with further consideration of a purchase of the Weyerhaeuser property in Columbia Falls,” said County Manager Mike Pence.
After entering into a 60-day buy/sell agreement to buy the 24 acres of land and a 35,000-square-foot office building commonly called the Cedar Palace in Columbia Falls, the commission heard from numerous Columbia Falls residents unhappy with the idea of building a new, 260-bed jail in their community.
The commission also heard from judges, law enforcement, probation officers and attorneys on the challenges the county’s justice system would face by locating the detention center so far from the justice center in downtown Kalispell, Pence said.
The county will likely now look for a site closer to the current justice center.
“We always knew that there was the issue regarding distance with the Weyerhaeuser site,” Pence said.
The site in Columbia Falls was one of three the commission had identified so far, but it may now begin to look for others.
Both the other two sites currently under consideration have some infrastructure challenges to overcome, including a lack of on-site utilities. The other sites include parcels just off Willow Glen Drive in the south Kalispell area and on U.S. Highway 93 at the old Kalispell Feed and Grain property.
Columbia Falls residents expressed concerns the new detention center could affect local property values and hurt the community through lost tax revenues.
The current detention center was constructed in 1984 in the courthouse complex in the center of Kalispell. The county has converted several spaces in the justice center to accommodate the increasing numbers of inmates.
The current detention center has 164 beds. Its daily current average inmate population is 130.
A recent addition that added 40 beds in a dormitory-style setting has given the county some breathing room, but most expect that capacity to be maxed out in the next few years as the area continues to grow.
Getting a new detention building constructed could take several years. To pay for the project, county voters would also first have to approve a bond that's estimated to run somewhere close to $50 million.
That estimate was made after considering the $40 million Gallatin County spent eight years ago to build its own new detention center, and adding on some expected inflation.
“Their county is almost identical to ours … but we’re just using that as a base,” Pence said. “Until we have some actual architectural drawings, we can’t develop a completely accurate estimate.”
In the meantime, Pence said the county will keep planning and looking for a new location.