City, MEP striving for greater communication, collaboration on economic growth

Venture capitalist Paul Singh, right, and Jenn Ewan, vice president of Missoula Economic Partnership, meet with local entrepreneurs during a pitch session in early July. (file photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

The Missoula Economic Partnership worked with 115 companies over the course of the last fiscal year, including 28 unnamed companies classified as business expansion, according to documents submitted recently to the Missoula City Council.

The spreadsheet lists 21 businesses by name and places each of the 115 companies into three separate categories including business retention and expansion, business attraction, and start-ups and entrepreneurs.

James Grunke, president and CEO of MEP, said that while the list doesn’t necessarily reflect outcomes and doesn’t name names, it does represent the efforts MEP has taken over the past year to expand the city’s economic base.

“We don’t disclose the names of the companies we work with without their permission,” Grunke said. “Often times, when a business is looking at a relocation or expansion, many of their employees don’t even know about it yet. We ask for permission, but until we get it, we don’t discuss it.”

After the Missoula City Council threatened to cut funding to MEP over a perceived lack of communication earlier this month, the two sides have been working to improve both communication and collaboration.

Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg praised MEP as one of several entities in Missoula that work toward economic development. However, he also said that the City Council remains the policy setting body and needed more understanding from MEP in that regard.

“It’s not so much about making sure there’s a scheduled presentation to the council, it’s about us getting around the table and working collaboratively,” he said. “Economic development has lots of different facets. One is policy creation by the council.”

Grunke said MEP was also looking to build a stronger partnership with the council.

“We want more engagement and they’d like to be more involved in the process and know the companies we’re dealing with, and communication is certainly part of that,” Grunke said. “It’s also about being at the table.”

While Missoula Mayor John Engen sits on MEP’s Board of Directors, Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong said communication doesn’t always trickle down to the City Council. Adding a council member to MEP’s Board of Directors would help, she believes.

Armstrong said the council has already made the request.

“If we had someone on the board, we could find out what’s going on that way,” said Armstrong. “It’s a long overdue step. We’re such an important community partner for MEP, and it will give us the answers we need to help answer questions from our constituents.”

Grunke said MEP’s Board of Directors would discuss adding a council member to the board in an ex-officio capacity. However, he said, such a decision has not been made.

“The board is interested in doing that,” he said.

From 2011 to 2015, MEP played a hand in creating 2,362 jobs, either directly, indirectly or assisted, according to data provided by the organization. The results of that effort generated $115 million in new personal income and $401 million in new business output.

While MEP provides a regular unredacted progress report to its Board of Directors, its not at liberty to do so with others due to confidential information. Grunke said it’s difficult at times to keep things under wraps when MEP wants to share details with the city.

“We would love to share, but we can’t do it,” he said. “But I think we’re going to do a better job at talking about what we do. We can say we’re working with a biomedical company that will bring 80 jobs and build 22,000 square feet of office space with a capital investment of ‘X.’ We’ll try to do that type of reporting more regularly.”

Citing the biomedical company as an example wasn’t by accident. On the list of 115 companies MEP worked with in Fiscal Year 2016, an unnamed biomedical company is listed under business attraction with a job potential of 100 to 300 employees. Several unnamed opportunities are also listed under creative industries, another area MEP is looking to target.

MEP has retained a “lead generation firm” to help it find and approach businesses operating in certain industries, including bio-science, advanced manufacturing, creative industries and information technology, among others.

“This one biomedical company’s request for proposals is a direct result of that lead generation firm,” Grunke said. “We would have never heard about them without this lead generation firm. We’re a long way from having them open a door in Missoula, but at least we’re now part of their discussions.”

Of the 115 companies listed on the latest contact chart submitted to the city, Grunke said roughly 33 percent are related to start-ups and entrepreneurs while 10 percent are efforts to attract new businesses to Missoula.

“But far and away, the most are business retention,” Grunke said. “Sometimes there’s a local company trying to expand in Missoula, but there are other communities in our state and surrounding states competing for their location. That’s also not part of the public discourse.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com