At the height of the pandemic, 13% fewer students moved from high school to college, putting universities in a precarious position. On Main Street, businesses were forced to close their doors and employees faced an uncertain future.

More than a year after the pandemic struck last spring, the national economy is on the mend, and Missoula is trending ahead of the curve. The unemployment rate is ticking back down, help wanted signs are posted in windows, and construction is on the rise.

“There's tremendous bullishness for Missoula, both from those doing business here for a long time and from those looking at the community as a place to relocate,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “There's a number of examples of businesses relocating from even the Rocky Mountain West because of the quality of life here, the nature of the workforce, and because of the University of Montana and the education students there are receiving.”

City and county leaders, along with UM President Seth Bodnar, considered the local economy on Monday and what their respective institutions were doing to move it forward. While government may be limited in its ability to fuel the economy, other than getting out of the way, several efforts are afoot, and elected officials predict positive outcomes.

Among them, Missoula County last November established a new Targeted Economic Development District at Wye. The district, which encompasses several hundred acres, was created after months of discussion and marks the county's first TEDD since it established the Missoula Development Park, followed shortly after by the Bonner West Log Yard.

A local fast food restaurant has increased its wages to find new workers.
A local fast food restaurant has increased its wages to find new workers.

Both districts have been highly successful, creating dozens of new businesses and hundreds of jobs. The county likes the potential of the new district at the Wye and the role it will play in the region's economic growth.

“Tax increment financing actually does work and has done great things for the City of Missoula and also Missoula County,” commissioner Dave Strohmaier said. “We're able to use dollars out of that TIF district to plow back into infrastructure in the Wye area for existing and future businesses and commercial enterprises. It's been super successful out at the Bonner mill site.”

While the county has made other efforts on the economic front, such as updating its zoning codes to accommodate modern development techniques, the city also has put in place intentional efforts directed at economic growth.

Among them, it continues to invest in the infrastructure needed to attract private investment and the jobs that come with it. Examples aren't hard to find in the downtown district and have included public investment in public infrastructure.

That investment in turn attracts new development.

“There's tremendous activity going on in downtown Missoula today, and I expect that to continue,” Engen said. “I also think we'll see a lot of redevelopment along the Russell Street corridor now that that transportation project has been completed, and I think we're seeing some of that today.”

Engen also anticipates future development along North Reserve and Scott Street, along with areas around the mall. There, two new projects are currently underway, including a new Mustard Seed and a 110,000 square foot SCHEELS sporting goods store.

“In some cases, that's a function of public investment in transportation and in other cases, it's public investment in other infrastructure,” Engen said. “In areas where we have urban renewal districts as well as an Opportunity Zone, we're seeing investment interest I don't think we'd otherwise have seen.”

A team of private investors also are working to close on several acres of property west of Missoula, where they plan to establish a new film and television studio. The Montana Media Hub announced its plans last year and is waiting on the outcome of a film tax credit still afloat in the Legislature.

Strohmaier said the county has taken an active role in the legislation. If the studio falls into place, it would likely bring more opportunities to the region, including new jobs, the purchasing of local goods and greater demand for air service.

It could also help drive film-induced tourism, which could boost local arts and culture, and employee spending.

“The film industry is taking a hard look at our community,” Strohmaier said. “We have been lobbying the Legislature to make sure legislation that incentivizes the film industry to do work here in the state of Montana and Missoula is adopted. There are opportunities to expand that right here in Missoula County.”

Area high school girls participate in a program exploring various jobs in the trades industry through the University of Montana and Missoula College. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)
Area high school girls participate in a program exploring various jobs in the trades industry through the University of Montana and Missoula College. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

UM President Bodnar believes the university also plays a hand in the city's economic well being. He admitted that over the past six years, the school has had its struggles in both recruiting and retaining students.

But that trend is showing signs of reversal and the university plans to continue building its partnership with area employers. In recent years, it partnered with Cognizant-ATG on a training program that has graduated 150 students into good-paying jobs in Missoula.

UM is also working with Wilson Logistics on a similar training program geared to the specific skills sought by the company. Bodnar said UM will continue to provide the human capital needed for economic growth.

“For companies to grow, it's not about hiring new people, it's about making sure we're meeting the education needs of current employees as well,” Bodnar said. “There's some important partnerships we've launched with employers to really be that educational partner, not to just bring new employees in, but to help up-skill and provide new learning to the current employee base to help that company grow even further.”