Could this district become Missoula’s new “innovation corridor?”

Several properties, including Blackfoot Communications and the former mattress store now owned by DJ&A, among others between Russell Street and West Broadway, could be redeveloped into a technology innovation center. (Google Earth)

Visions for a large technology campus near downtown Missoula are taking shape off West Broadway, where plans for an “innovation corridor” are gaining traction and have found the backers needed to move the project from conception to reality.

And the timing may be perfect.

Those with an eye on the city’s growing tech industry and entrepreneurial ecosystem have said for years that the Montana Technology Enterprise Center, located across town near Missoula College on East Broadway, has reached its capacity, leaving little room for new upstarts.

Now, a group of business owners, chief executives and the city are looking at something new, and the stars may be aligning on West Broadway.

“A year or so ago, I was in a meeting at Blackfoot Communications with Bill Squire and all his senior people, and James Grunke (of the Missoula Economic Partnership),” said Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency.

“They were talking about doing some kind of data center in the buildings behind their main office. Before I knew it, (Squires) and I were just way up here creating a tech campus all the way from Russell Street to Broadway.”

When Squires passed away unexpectedly last year, Buchanan assumed the concept of a tech campus had likely passed with him. But the idea has won the support of Blackfoot’s new CEO Jason Williams and at least one new property owner.

“Coincidental, DJ&A has tied up the property on West Broadway where the Mattress Outlet is – that’s the connection between between Blackfoot and West Broadway,” Buchanan said. “DJA is extremely excited about the tech campus.”

Chris Anderson, president of DJ&A – a planning and engineering firm based in Missoula – and Williams have since asked MRA to contribute $5,000 to help create a master plan for the future campus.

MRA agreed, and with private funding provided by Blackfoot and DJ&A, the planning study is expected to begin soon.

“The early vision is to create a tech and innovation corridor in Missoula,” Williams told the Missoula Current. “The thinking would be, it’s a place where not only existing high-tech companies in Montana can locate their business, but also tech companies looking to relocate from somewhere else to Missoula.”

Like the MonTEC center on East Broadway, a new West Broadway innovation center could also boost collaboration and coordination between established companies and upstarts.

A report released in April by the Montana High Tech Business Alliance found that Missoula ranks ninth among 394 national cities considered by the study for its startup rate. The study also found that Montana’s growing support network has played a hand in boosting entrepreneurial activity.

Statewide, the tech economy generated more than $1 billion in revenue last year and grew seven times faster than the statewide economy. A new technology center in Missoula could further nurture that growth, Williams said.

“We’re going to develop a master plan and work with the adjacent landowners to see if we can do something even more,” said Williams. “We’ve been spit-balling a lot of ideas. There’s 13 acres next door at the Department of Transportation and it just has trucks on it. Being that close to the center of Missoula, it would be great to repurpose that.”

Missoula ranks 9th in national startup rates, study finds