The Flathead County Commissioners reiterated last week that they prefer a “wait and see” approach to implementing an energy efficiency-focused financing program after receiving a letter from local businesses urging them to reconsider.
Among the 27 businesses signing the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce’s 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 stated that they had heard nothing from local businesses about their desire to have the concept, known as C-PACE, implemented in the county.
Signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte in 2021, the program is designed to finance energy-saving capital investments on 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 upgrades.
County spokesperson Steven White said that lobbying from the chamber hasn’t changed the 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 “may listen.”
Commissioners Pam Holmquist and Randy Brodehl still want to see the program rolled out at the municipal level before taking action, White said.
Kalispell City Council has shown interest in moving forward and passed a resolution of intent for implementing the program at its Dec. 19 meeting.
Businesses outside city limits, though, would 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 C-PACE eligible 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 events in the off-season. His ideas include potential winter farmers’ markets, a concept that could also benefit local vendors. The space currently sits empty for much of the year.
Aitkin said the financing program would help him make the changes.
“[The upgrades] would be a lot easier to accomplish with this program in place,” he said.
Chamber President Lorraine Clarno also spoke publicly at the commission’s Dec. 20 meeting,
telling commissioners that she had gathered the supporting signatures in only 48 hours. She said in a recent interview that the Flathead business community is receptive to C-PACE implementation.
At the meeting Clarno reminded the commissioners how many business owners stand to benefit from having C-PACE financing opportunities.
“Know that when we send a letter, we are representing 700 businesses,” Clarno said.
In a separate interview, Clarno said she has received no response from the board since. She described their silence as “frustrating.”
“This 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 the 38 states nationwide with similar programs.
Gill first approached the commissioners in the summer and followed up in October when he received word that there was local interest in C-PACE.
Clarno said the commissioners were aware of the program as early as March.
Gill can understand hesitance by the commissioners, but said that he has answers for any questions they may have about the program.
When asked for the commissioner’s specific objections, White said that they were trying to protect the county and taxpayers.
Because C-PACE is structured with private funds, no public liability or taxes are created, a point that Gill stresses in the information sessions he tailors for public officials. Gill estimated that it takes between one and three hours annually to set up a C-PACE district, and there is no other cost to local governments.
According to White, commissioners have not reached out to Gill for any more information.
Gill said he is always ready to work with the county should the commissioners change their minds.
Clarno thinks commissioners may pay a political price if they continue to ignore business interests.
“I think they are choosing not to listen, and if that continues they may get on the wrong side of the business community,” Clarno said.
Reporter Adrian Knowler can be reached at 758-4407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.