Don’t blame unbridled American consumerism alone for the proliferation of self storage facilities in the Flathead Valley.
Owners and managers of several such businesses who were recently interviewed offered a variety of explanations for what appears to be strong and continuing regional demand for self storage units.
Customers include people in transition, either downsizing to a smaller home or building a bigger one not yet ready for occupancy. There are seasonal residents who need a place to store lawn furniture in winter. There are people with large houses but small lots. There are adult children whose parents have died and left a house full of memories no one can yet bear to discard.
And there are those who live in new subdivisions with covenants that frown on yards full of hoi polloi eyesores like snowmobiles, RVs and ATVs.
Tony Corporan is general manager of Windmill Storage and Business Park, a sprawling facility off U.S. 2 near Glacier Park International Airport. Windmill boasts 762 storage units and keeps adding on. Corporan said he grew up in a Kalispell family that wasn’t wealthy but owned a lot of recreational gear. As do many others who’ve grown up playing outside in Montana, he said.
“I think we have the same number of toys, we just have less room to put them” he said.
Corporan said the growth of the Flathead Valley has been accompanied by growth at Windmill, Montana. “We continue to build,” he said. “Every time we get close to full, we add units.”
Aaron McPherson owned a moving company in Whitefish and that experience helped him decide to open Central Storage in 2017. “It was like a daily occurrence to recommend various storage facilities around the valley [to moving customers],” McPherson said.
After selling the moving business, Aaron and his wife, Carrie, had the capital to buy land and build 176 storage units. He said he received advice from competitor Jeff Jensen, owner of nearby Happy Valley Storage. “He’s been very supportive,” McPherson said. “He built his units decades ago and he’s been full ever since.”
McPherson said many of Central Storage’s customers are in transition. “Our customers are kind of in between — they sold their house and they’re building a new one,” McPherson said.
McPherson and other owners of regional self-storage businesses said they feel the growth of the Flathead Valley and the nation’s improved economy have contributed to an increase in storage facilities.
“There’s America’s robust economy,” McPherson said. “People say, ‘Hey, we’re doing so well we’re going to build a bigger house.’”
Comedian George Carlin once quipped, “A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”
And sometimes the stuff begins to overwhelm the space, and that crunch can create customers for self storage facilities.
According to a 2017 national study by the Self Storage Association, “the most popular reasons for renting a self storage unit are: storing items that you don’t have room for at your residence and temporary storage while changing residences.”
Ken Yachechak is a co-owner and managing partner of Meridian Mini Storage in Kalispell, Montana. Meridian has about 1,100 units within the city limits and an occupancy rate of about 97 percent, he said. Yachechak has a perspective on the storage industry honed by 25 years in the business.
“We are a country of hoarders,” he said. “We don’t throw things away. People are accumulating stuff. It’s part of the culture.”
Yet, like other regional owners of self-storage facilities, Yachechak said Meridian Mini Storage’s customers can’t be pigeonholed.
“The clientele is just all over the place, at least for us,” he said. There are customers who, like Yachechak, store whitewater rafts and other outdoor gear. “People store stuff that is cumbersome to store at home,” he said. Others store antique cars. Contractors, electricians and plumbers rent spaces to stash tools and materials, he said.
Yachechak said there are few self storage facilities in Kalispell and one key advantage of Meridian Mini Storage is its proximity to the city’s customers.
In addition, he said, Meridian emphasizes security in a way some county facilities do not.
“There can be a high crime rate in mini storage, relative to the rest of the community,” Yachechak said. “We have an extensive camera system at our units. We certainly aren’t immune to it, but we work very hard to protect our customers’ belongings.”
He said most thefts can be linked to drugs. The McPhersons’ Central Storage, along with Windmill Storage and other facilities, also emphasize security, with fencing, surveillance cameras and security gates. Yet there are storage facilities in Flathead County that lack all of those features.
Bob McCue of Eagle Self Storage in Missoula is a member of the advisory board for Montana Self Storage Association. He said today’s customers often demand strong security, which requires a response by self storage facilities to remain competitive.
“We’re starting to see more people up their game on security,” McCue said. “The customer is getting savvier. They come in from out-of-state and they might have had a bad experience [with storage] before.”
SpareFoot, a company that tracks the self-storage industry and helps customers connect with storage businesses, estimates there are about 50,000 self-storage facilities currently operating in the U.S., with about 1.7 billion square feet of rentable storage.
“As for the trends, we are at the height of a five-year development cycle in which the self-storage industry set record levels of construction spending and is estimated to have built 600 to 900 facilities a year over the last three years,” said Alexander Harris of SpareFoot.
“The industry has been very successful, and is recognized more as a good investment among private capital groups and real estate investors,” he said. “That means there is more money on the sidelines looking to get into the industry either through acquisition or development.”
Corporan said the self storage business can be financially rewarding, with good revenue, low overhead and attractive profit after a few years.
Harris said interest in building storage facilities has spread nationwide.
“I suspect the reason you are seeing more storage facilities in your area is that local developers see the success that is happening in other markets and see an opportunity to emulate it,” he said. “You are also starting to see major metro areas become saturated with storage, meaning investors need to find projects in alternative areas.”
He said demand for storage can be strong among baby boomers who have accumulated a lifetime of possessions and can’t bear to part with them when moving to a smaller home.
“Another reason storage is thriving is that people have so much stuff they just don’t know what to do with it,” Harris said.
McCue said some young people who rent apartments in Missoula still want to own outdoors gear, such as kayaks, for which they need to find a place to stash.
Recent additions to the storage facility market in Flathead County include a large complex of looming structures built along Montana 82 by Jesco Marine & Power Sports of Kalispell.
Christi Esparza, the company’s marketing director, said renting, which began in mid-June, appears to be picking up.
“We offer boat and RV storage, which seems to be our most popular,” she said. “Storage is a complementary business for our boat and power sports customers. Our customers love their boats, side-by-sides and snowmobiles; each has a season of use and each needs to be stored somewhere.”
Like others interviewed for this story, Esparza noted that many homeowners association covenants in new subdivisions do not allow parking of boats and RVs. The Jesco offerings include, but are not limited to, bays that are 14 feet tall, 12 feet wide and 50 feet deep.
Critics of the self storage industry often complain that its facilities are an aesthetic blight on the landscape. The Jesco Storage facility’s design features a few fake cupolas, which Esparza acknowledged were added by the company to improve the complex’s appearance. “We wanted to sort of keep with the agricultural theme [of the area],” she said.
Developer Bill Tanner built storage units intended to first serve residents of his Rosewater subdivision off Rose Crossing. But he added units, he said, because he saw the demand. “The county also recognized the need and approved the [storage] development,” Tanner said.
Kathy Yoder opened Copper Lion Storage in 2016 on Montana 35. She is building on, responding to consumer demand, and the facility will soon feature 254 units. She said the Flathead Valley’s continued growth seems to suggest ongoing demand for storage, but she said she wonders when a saturation point might be reached. “I’ve tried to be careful to build out based on demand,” Yoder said.
Meanwhile, McPherson, Corporan and Yachechak all anticipate more self storage facilities will be built in the years ahead if the economy remains strong.
“Remember, the economy is good right now, and money is easy to borrow,” Yachechak said.
“I’ve been watching it,” McPherson said. “I’ve been seeing them go up. Like everything else, you just have to differentiate yourself from the competition.”