Flathead County commissioners reiterated last week that they prefer a “wait and see” approach to implementing a funding program focused on energy efficiency after receiving a letter from local businesses urging them to reconsider.
Among the 27 businesses that signed the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce petition were Applied Materials, Glacier Bank, Immanuel Lutheran Communities, Logan Health, Flathead Electric Cooperative and the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors. The group launched the lobbying effort after commissioners said they had heard nothing from local businesses about their desire to implement the concept, known as C-PACE, in the county.
Signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte in 2021, the program is designed to fund energy-saving capital investments in commercial properties.
Through C-PACE, property owners are matched with private lenders, who are reimbursed using funds saved through energy efficiency improvements over the life of the improvements.
County spokesman Steven White said lobbying from the chamber hasn’t changed commissioners’ minds, with White describing the letter-writing campaign by business representatives as “complaining.”
According to White, if business owners contact Commissioner Brad Abell directly with specific capital investment proposals and their perceived benefits, he “might listen.”
Commissioners Pam Holmquist and Randy Brodehl still want to see the program implemented at the municipal level before taking action, White said.
The Kalispell City Council has shown interest in moving forward and passed a resolution of intent to implement the program at its Dec. 19 meeting.
Businesses outside the city limits, however, will have to rely on the county to approve the program in order for them to participate.
Phil Aitkin, owner of Hooper’s Garden Center, is interested in eligible C-PACE upgrades, but his business is located east of Kalispell and in the county. Aitkin wants to install a climate control system in the garden center’s 40,000-square-foot retail greenhouse, allowing it to host off-season events. His ideas include potential winter farmers’ markets, a concept that could also benefit local vendors. The space currently sits empty for most of the year.
Aitkin said the funding program would help him make the changes.
“[The upgrades] it would be much easier to accomplish with this program in place,” he said.
Chamber President Lorraine Clarno also spoke publicly at the December 20 committee meeting.
telling commissioners she had gathered the supporting signatures in just 48 hours. She said in a recent interview that the Flathead business community is open to implementing C-PACE.
At the meeting, Clarno reminded commissioners how many business owners will benefit from C-PACE financing opportunities.
“Know that when we send out a letter, we represent 700 businesses,” Clarno said.
In a separate interview, Clarno said he hasn’t heard back from the board since. She described their silence as “disappointing”.
“It puts Flathead businesses at a disadvantage with other counties and states,” Clarno said.
According to Adam Gill, the state’s C-PACE program administrator, at least eight Montana counties have already signed on, in addition to 38 states nationwide with similar programs.
Gill first approached commissioners in the summer and followed up in October when he got word there was local interest in the C-PACE.
Clarno said commissioners have been aware of the program since March.
Gill can understand the commissioners’ reluctance, but said he has answers to any questions they may have about the program.
When asked about the commissioner’s specific objections, White said they were trying to protect the county and taxpayers.
Because C-PACE is structured with private funds, no public obligations or taxes are created, a point Gill emphasizes in briefing sessions he prepares for public officials. Gill estimated that it takes between one and three hours per year to set up a C-PACE district, and there is no other cost to local governments.
According to White, the commissioners have not contacted Gill for more information.
Gill said he is always willing to work with the county if commissioners change their minds.
Clarno thinks commissioners may pay a political price if they continue to ignore business interests.
“I think they’re choosing not to listen, and if this continues, they could get on the wrong side of the business community,” Clarno said.
Reporter Adrian Knowler can be reached at 758-4407 or email@example.com.
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