Daily Inter Lake | December 2, 2019 | Bret Anne Serbin
After more than 30 years of planning the future of Kalispell and Flathead County, Kalispell Planning Director Tom Jentz is wrapping up a plan of his own. The longtime local planner will be retiring on Dec. 5.
Jentz has served as planning director for the city of Kalispell since 2005 and as a planner for joint countywide organizations for 22 years before that.
At one time he had different aspirations.
“I started off on track to be a lawyer,” he said. “I got accepted to law school, turned around and said ‘I don’t think I want to be [a lawyer]…I decided at the last minute that planning looked like an interesting field.”
He had no initial intentions of settling in the Flathead Valley. But a solo motorcycle trip brought him to Glacier National Park after graduate school at North Dakota State University, and he’s been here the 36 years since.
He started out working with the now-defunct Flathead Regional Development Office in 1983. He eventually became director of the collaborative organization that provided planning services for the county and the cities of Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls before it dissolved in 2001.
The coalition was partially reorganized as the Tri-City Planning Office in 2001. In 2005, individual cities began to take the reins of their own planning, and Jentz became the inaugural director of Kalispell’s Planning and Building Department.
“I’ve been a planning director for 24 years, but in different capacities,” he explained.
Jentz has lived in the same North Main Street home throughout his lengthy tenure.
“It’s a phenomenal place to live,” he said. “It’s a small town. The people are great. You can know the people you work with. It has so much potential.”
His enthusiasm for the community hasn’t changed over the decades, even though the area itself has been transformed.
“From the time I came 36 years ago until now, Flathead County’s actually doubled in population. The city of Kalispell has doubled in population and land area,” Jentz noted.
“I mark change by traffic lights,” he said. When he first arrived, there were six traffic lights between the city of Kalispell and Glacier National Park. Now, there are 21. “So that just tells you growth and change,” he reiterated.
Even with such significant growth, Jentz has consistently prioritized the small community feel that originally drew him to the area in his role as planning director.
“You want to have a feeling like you belong in this community and there’s some thought process to that,” he said.
To create this atmosphere, he has worked to keep growth under control in desirable areas like North Kalispell, helped Kalispell earn the designation of a Dark Sky community, aimed to strike a balance with commercial developments and focused on the aesthetics of the town’s entrance.
One of Jentz’s top priorities has been investment in the resurgence of downtown Kalispell.
“Downtowns need to be cared for, and watered and loved. One of the treasures we have is our downtown,” he said. “The Planning Department and the City Council are currently focused on asking: ‘What can we do to bring development and redevelopment to our downtown?’”
Over many decades of development, a few projects in particular stand out to Jentz. He believes Kidsports, the multi-use trails around the city and the U.S. 93 bypass have been some of the most transformative developments for the local community when it comes to recreation and transportation. And one of the most significant undertakings of his planning career is the Core Area Redevelopment and accompanying Glacier Rail Park project.
“Really, I think one of the best projects to work on is the Core Area,” he said. “That’s a project where nine years ago it didn’t exist.”
“It had been tried three times before and it failed miserably,” he said.
Jentz worked tirelessly with the rest of the Planning and Building Department, the City Council and local business owners to move the two remaining railroad-dependent companies out of the downtown area and into the new rail park. Soon, the railroad tracks will be removed from downtown and replaced with 2 miles of trail.
Mayor Mark Johnson has called it “the most transformative project in the next 100 years” in Kalispell.
Jentz is confident projects like this will continue to develop after his departure.
“The team here is just going to continue on. It’s a good team. It’s been great to be part of them,” he said. “Literally, the tracks have been laid. This office is going to continue on.”
The Planning Department will hold interviews for a new director on Dec. 9.
Of course, this positive outlook is no surprise from Jentz, who exudes the enthusiasm of someone in the first 36 hours of his career, rather than the last of 36 years.
“I believe a positive attitude is a choice, and I just choose to be ‘hey, life is good,’” he said simply.
And it helps that the planning director position “is like a dream come true,” for Jentz.
“As I look at finishing my career, I can’t think of another place I’d rather be with everything that’s going on here and everything that’s come together,” he said. “I absolutely love the profession, being involved with how communities grow … it’s been a good run.”