2020: A year in review
Perhaps the best thing most can say about 2020 is that it’s over. Here’s a look at our top 10 stories of 2020:
1) The coronavirus crisis gripped the nation.
Montana and Flathead County weren’t spared from the illness that started in Wuhan, China and spread across the globe. All told, 56 people in Flathead County have died from the disease, which is particularly harmful to people who are age 60 and older. Others simply got sick, often with a cough, fever and body aches that lasted weeks.
Some people didn’t get sick at all — it’s estimated that 50 percent of positive cases were asymptomatic. Still, concerns about the virus shuttered schools in the spring and wreaked havoc with school sports in the fall. Glacier National Park closed the east side down in deference to the Blackfeet Tribe, which was concerned about the illness spreading through its population, spread by tourism. The east side remains closed heading into 2021 and the virus, at least for the time being, appears to be ebbing, as the first healthcare workers are being vaccinated, with thousands more expected to be vaccinated in 2021 statewide.
2) Voters by a narrow margin passed a new resort tax in Columbia Falls. The 3% tax focuses on things like restaurant meals, bar drinks and other “non essential items.” It does not tax most foods, auto sales and hardware sales, for example. It goes into effect in October, 2021.
3) After two years of reconstruction, the Sperry Chalet opened to guests. The backcountry chalet in Glacier National Park was gutted by the Sprague Fire on Aug. 31, 21017. Crews from Dick Anderson Construction restored and rebuilt the main dormitory. The chalet booked in a matter of minutes.
4) Work began on the renovation and addition of Ruder Elementary School after voters approved a $37 million bond in 2019. The bond also covered new ball fields, a new Glacier Gateway Elementary and renovations to the junior high. The ball fields were completed in 2020 as well.
5) Developer Mick Ruis proposed a new $15 million complex on the city square in Columbia Falls. Initial plans called for a health club, condominiums, a steak house and a pool. But once the coronavirus crisis struck, he scaled back the project and did away with the pool and the health club. Initial groundwork has started.
6) A massive land deal that saw Weyerhaeuser sell 630,000 acres of its timberlands to Southern Pine Plantations closed. The lands stretch from the west side of Kalispell to Libby. More than 200,000 acres of it is being negotiated for conservation easements. SPP in turn, announced it was selling 291,000 of those acres to Green Diamond Resource Company in November. Green Diamond said its plan is to manage the lands for timber.
Still SPP apparently did sell some coveted hunting grounds. Lands in the McGinnis Meadows area that were formerly open to the public have since been sold and are now private, the Western News reported in December.
7) A federal appeals court in May ordered Glacier National park and 21 other parks to devise air tour management plans. Helicopter traffic has long been a complaint from visitors to the park.
8) After being closed for April and May due to concerns that tourism would spread coronavirus, Glacier Park opened in June. Visitation was robust and over the Labor Day weekend, the line extended for miles up Highway 2 as people tried to get into the West Entrance. Overall, visitation to the park was more than 1.67 million, the lowest since 2001. Even so, it seemed busier than usual, as people arrived in their own private vehicles. With most campgrounds closed in the park, people camped wherever they could find a place to pull over. Some left heaps of trash behind.
9) The real estate market skyrocketed, boosted by pent-up demand and low interest rates. People from out of state that were leaving due to coronavirus crisis and civil unrest helped fuel demand as well. The median house price in Columbia Falls went up 50 percent from three years ago. It’s now more than $336,000.
10) The election saw a nearly a clean sweep by the GOP in both local and statewide races. Greg Gianforte won the governorship, beating longtime Democrat Mike Cooney. In local races, Braxton Mitchell defeated incumbent Debo Powers for the House District 3 seat and Carl Glimm handily defeated Kyle Waterman for the Senate District 2 spot. But President Donald Trump was defeated by challenger Joe Biden. Trump claimed there was election fraud, but in court case after court case, the election has been upheld. Biden won by more than 7 million votes nationwide, but lost in Montana.
11) In one of the most bizarre crimes in Columbia Falls history, Alan Roger Connor Jr. drove his car into the Super 1 Foods grocery store in November. Connor went down one aisle and up another and out of the store, causing thousands of dollars in damage. He then fled to a nearby assisted living center, where his girlfriend lived. He was found running naked through the halls and then was later arrested by police naked int he snow about a block away. Connor allegedly told police he was hallucinating from methamphetamine and went to the store to get his girlfriend some cigarettes, No one was injured in the incident.
In passing… We lost the “voice of Columbia Falls” in January. Karl Skindingsrude, the longtime emcee of many city events died of natural causes. Pat McVay, who was instrumental in starting the hunter education program in Montana died of natural causes. He was 100. Ian Tippet, who was the general manager at the Many Glacier Hotel for years and brought Broadway-style musicals to the lodge died in March. He was 86. Former Glacier National Park superintendent Phil Iversen died. He was 96. Iversen’s tenure included allowing Director Michael Cimino shoot the film “Heaven’s Gate” in Glacier. But crews were heavily damaging the park and Iversen shut down the filming, most of which was in Two Medicine.