Missoula Economic Partnership plans studies on workforce, entry-level housing

James Grunke

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

The Missoula Economic Partnership plans to launch two separate studies to explore the city’s workforce and housing needs, the organization’s president told the City Council on Wednesday.

MEP also plans to fill a position recently vacated by a top employee, and it intends to fill several openings on its board of directors, including that left by former St. Patrick Hospital CEO Jeff Fee, former University of Montana President Royce Engstrom, and former Blackfoot Telecommunications President Bill Squires.

Squires passed away last November.

“Missoula is having somewhat of a leadership vacuum,” said James Grunke, president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership. “The executive committee has the ability to fill any of those vacancies.”

Grunke, in his quarterly update to the council, said Joyce Dombrouski will represent Providence on MEP’s board of directors, while Jason Williams comes aboard as the new CEO of Blackfoot. It’s unknown what role interim UM President Sheila Stearns will want to play, Grunke said.

“We have a meeting scheduled with (Stearns) to talk about what direction she wants to have,” Grunke said. “We don’t do boards by organizations. We do it by people. But we’re concerned about losing continuity with UM for however long it takes (to find a new president). We want UM represented.”

Grunke said MEP has been courting a manufacturing firm interested in relocating to Missoula. While he didn’t disclose the company’s name, he said the firm could bring 160 new manufacturing jobs at full production if it chooses the city.

Suggesting an uptick on the economic front, Grunke added that MEP has submitted five new job creation applications to the Big Sky Trust Fund grant. Most recently, he said, OnXmaps submitted a $245,000 application to create 38 new jobs, while Orbital Shift provided a $200,000 application to create 32 jobs.

“These jobs are split between Bozeman and Missoula,” Grunke said. “Both of these companies, for their own strategic growth, have put some of that employee growth in Bozeman. We’re the first community to do a multi-jurisdictional application, and we think it makes sense.”

Grunke, who described the process as somewhat cumbersome, didn’t state whether Bozeman was contributing to MEP’s time. In its latest budget, the city of Missoula contributed roughly $100,000 to the organization.

Grunke said the new approach to job creation has been successful and well-received by the state. At the same time, he said, the Big Sky Trust Fund program could be vulnerable to a reduction in funding given the budget crisis facing the Legislature.

“These companies are making real differences in Missoula and Montana jobs,” Grunke said. “There’s more money dedicated to Missoula through the Big Sky Trust Fund than any other community in the state. We do a good job vetting the applicants. We only propose projects we think will get funded. We have a good outcome.”

Grunke said MEP has also spent the past three months working to develop a stronger business retention and expansion program. As part of that, MEP will begin sending out a survey to targeted businesses to better understand the impediments they face in growing locally.

“It’s difficult for us to take prescriptive action if we don’t know what the problems are,” Grunke said. “Our effort has always been to ask what we’re doing to help a growing business grow and expand. That’s about 50 percent of our time and energy. The next one we spend time on is startups, and we spend time on business attraction.”

Grunke added that MEP will launch a workforce housing study in partnership with the Missoula Organization of Realtors, along with a new workforce study. Both are intended to understand the challenges for business growth – and the challenges workers face in finding housing.

When asked if MEP planned to replace former MEP Vice President Jenn Ewan, Grunke said yes, though the job description would likely change. Ewan left the organization in November to take a job with an expanding law firm.

Grunke said her job at MEP no longer exists.

“Yes, we’re going to be recruiting for that position, but we haven’t figured out what that position is going to look like,” Grunke said. “What we’re trying to think about organizationally, are we going to bring someone on in a leadership role like Jenn Ewan, or are we trying to bring someone in that’s an economic development practitioner?”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com