A story of struggle and community pride

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Almost 15 years ago, Melanie Byrd and I were trying to buy Jack’s Liquor located up on the old Downtown District of Nucleus Ave in Columbia Falls. We were pregnant with our oldest child, Zoey and very excited at the opportunity to open our very own business in my hometown.

Mel and I went to so many financial institutions looking for someone to accept our very first business loan application. No one wanted to take the risk on such a young couple that still had some college loans to pay off. That is until we walked through Don Bennett’s (now president and founder of Freedom Bank) office at (then) First Citizen’s Bank of all places, on Nucleus Avenue. He approved us and the following Friday we had keys to the store. We will forever be thankful to the Bennett family and the faith they showed in Melanie and I that day. We purchased the store in September of 2004.

Looking back on it, we barely made it, to be honest. Those first 6 months almost broke us. I kept telling Melanie “just wait for the summer.”

I used to work at my mom’s liquor store growing up. They went through the same seasons. Very slow late fall through Memorial Day. Once the summer tourist traffic hit, the business did fairly well as it was located in Hungry Horse right on Highway 2, a major thoroughfare on the way to Glacier National Park. If it wasn’t for summer traffic, my parents’ business along with so many others along Highway 2 from Columbia Falls to West Glacier, would not survive!

Well, summer hit. June came and went. July came. We averaged ONE out-of-town visitor in our store a week in July. That single visitor was lost. They thought that they could get to West Glacier via the North Fork road. You can. But I asked more questions and yup, they were lost. I can remember thinking that we might not make it.

As a new business owner with a newborn baby and bills piling up, we were scared. I vividly remember one day, driving up and down the Highway 2 strip in Columbia Falls looking and looking for a location somewhere in town on the tourist route to Glacier. Finally an old frame shop next to Rex’s Pawn and the train tracks that run through town, moved and there was a small space that opened up. Arguably it was a much smaller space and the parking was terrible, but what choice did we have? Owning a successful retail store on Nucleus seemed daunting.

We sold our condominium interest of that building to Dave Peterson and moved immediately. After the dust settled and we opened for business right before the summer season, we were anxious to see what kind of increase in sales there would be. We apprehensively welcomed in the month of May. We changed our name from Columbia Falls Liquor & Wine to: O’Brien’s Liquor & Wine

“This new location is going to help right?” we kept asking ourselves.

May came and went. Sales were up 50 percent. June 150 percent. July 300 percent. We literally tripled our business in our first year at the new location on Highway 2 because of the simple fact that we put ourselves in front of the visitors that frequent our world famous Glacier National Park.

I don’t hesitate to share this. Why? I want you to think of all businesses past and present that reside or used to reside on our once vibrant and lively downtown district, Nucleus Ave in Columbia Falls, Montana. Why have they struggled for these last 40 years? For decades locals have driven by vacant buildings with blacked out windows and dark entrances. Brown paper covered facades haunted our famous strip of downtown. Surviving businesses failed to improve their business fronts or update their retail spaces.

Murmurs and snickers from locals about our sad state of affairs along this thoroughfare echoed down our Main Street. Inside those doors of surviving businesses, hard working owners sit wringing their weary hands in frustration and helplessness. Depending on local support was hard with all those challenges that faced them. Why would locals visit their businesses when they could drive 15-25 minutes down the road and visit something new and shiny in other surrounding communities?

Can you imagine investing your whole life into a venture and risking it all, yet feel like your hands were tied as you struggled to keep your head above water? I remember that feeling. Like trying to swim with your hands tied. It sucks. Those were dark times.

Due to city and Montana Department of Transportation regulations on signage, they couldn’t even put their business sign up at the mouth of Nucleus and Highway 2 to direct traffic towards their doors. After countless attempts at trying to get those regulations changed, most Nucleus business felt defeated.

Does anyone remember that old wooden archway that crossed Nucleus down by Glacier Bank? The arch spanned across the entrance to downtown. “Welcome to Columbia Falls,” bold and beautiful spelled across the top. The immense structure was an undeniable sign to passerbys that driving underneath its girth would welcome them to visit and frequent all businesses that bordered each side of that street.

One day the arch was hit by a logging truck and was removed July 17, 1981 when the highway department took over Nucleus — it became Highway 486 — and widened the intersection. For 38 years, our hometown’s downtown district had absolutely ZERO signage and visual recognition of our main street. By the way, Nucleus Avenue is our main street and downtown. It always has been and will always be.

Two years ago I was asked to be on a wonderful nonprofit board of the Columbia Falls Community Foundation. The members included: Susan Nicosia, Mark Johnson, Lyle Mitchell, and Ray Negron.

Their mission statement:

“The Columbia Falls Community Foundation is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) formed in 2000 to enhance and enrich the quality of life for our community. Our volunteer Board of Directors consists of community leaders who meet on a regular basis. A healthy, vibrant, and safe community is important to us. Community-based cooperation helps us maximize our resources, solves problems for the common good, and provides needed services without tax dollars.”

When the Community Foundation mentioned their interest in the signage project, I was 100 percent in. This project has been over two years in the making. Many other projects for the mouth of Nucleus, failed for so many reasons. There are so many entities and factors in play for a project like this one.

One hundred percent of our “new” Nucleus Entrance park funds, were raised from local business donations. To the tune of $40,000. The signs are 20-foot wide and the tallest point is 12-foot tall. They are forged and created from concrete and steel. They will have lights on them so that our welcome sign can be inviting and welcoming at night. The landscaping, flowers, bushes, and small trees that surround our sign will be stunning!

The support for this has been absolutely overwhelming. The hard work and dedication to the continued beautification and city amenity’s improvement by the CF Community Foundation Board, has been amazing. We will announce the donor list after the ribbon cutting, tentatively June 3.

After 38 years of waiting, we bring back our downtown signs. For it doesn’t matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop. Our goal was to not only help try to revitalize our historic downtown, but to build something that will make our Columbia Falls Community members proud.

Long live Columbia Falls! We Bleed Blue. We work hard and we adventure hard.

But THIS is where WE live. Adventure Lives Here. #cfallswins

O’Brien and Melanie Byrd

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