At a downtown recruitment party hosted by Missoula’s newest tech company on Wednesday night, James Grunke cupped a beer and made the rounds, mingling with the city’s up-and-coming business leaders.
Scanning the room, the CEO and president of the Missoula Economic Partnership acknowledged the young crop of job applicants, and he lauded the city’s newfound economic energy. Given how things were back in 2012 when he took the job, Missoula has come a long way.
“It just shows the energy and expertise that exists in Missoula, and it’s exciting,” Grunke told the Missoula Current that night. “I’ve gotten to work in other big communities before, and this is the first time I’ve felt the same level of energy in Missoula.”
What Grunke didn’t mention at the party, hosted by ClassPass, was his intention to leave the job at month’s end.
On Friday, Grunke announced his resignation as MEP’s president and CEO, ending a tenure that saw progress in expanding the city’s air service and recruiting new businesses to the community.
The announcement came early Friday morning in a press release from a local advertising agency, and it gave little reason for Grunke’s departure. While Grunke didn’t return calls Friday seeking comment, he told the Missoula City Council in an email that the time had come for the organization to transition to its next leader.
“It is time for me to move on to the next stage of my life,” he said. “I am simply presented with too great of an opportunity to pass up, which will also allow me to be with my family. There is never an easy juncture to leave in economic development, as there is always the next big project that is coming along, but the time is right for MEP to make a healthy transition to a new CEO.”
MEP was created by Missoula Mayor John Engen in 2011 as a tool to tackle economic development at the community level. Over the past several years, the organization has seen both evolution and success, culminating most recently with the arrival of ClassPass, an international tech firm that chose Missoula as the location for its third North American office.
Grunke, an advocate of expanded air service, had long suggested that the city’s economic future was tied in part to its travel options and affordability. Late last year, he was on hand to announce the arrival of American Airlines with nonstop service to Dallas/Fort Worth.
“There are many accomplishments that I am very proud to have been a part of during my tenure here,” Grunke wrote to the City Council. “I am particularly proud of the revitalization of the Bonner Mill site and for being able to work alongside the owners Steve Nelson and Mike Boehme. Missoula is a very different place than it was when I first arrived here in 2010, and I am happy to have played a role in its development.”
On Friday, Mayor Engen attributed Grunke’s efforts to transforming the way Missoula approaches economic development. He was the right person for the job at the right time, and the city’s economic progress serves as a testament to Grunke’s leadership at MEP.
“Economic development is a long-term game,” Engen said. “The foundational work that we’ve done and the work James has done, and his really remarkable staff, has put Missoula on the map, and that’s where we wanted to be.”
Engen, who serves on MEP’s board of directors, said Grunke’s departure has presented the organization with an opportunity to examine its future.
Once mired in the doldrums of a declining timber-based extraction industry, the city has found new life on the technology front. It has been recognized nationally as a small but powerful hub for entrepreneurs and tech-based startups.
“Our internal conversations on the partnership’s board have been about any time anyone leaves an organization, it’s an opportunity to look at what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” Engen said. “Missoula is in a much different place than we were in 2010, so we’ll look at our goals and opportunities a little differently and try to decide organizationally how we want to move forward.”
While Grunke brought particular talents and strengths to the table, Engen said MEP’s next leader may bring new talents and strengths to the job. It’s unknown if the organization has begun its search for a new president or what timeline it’s on. Its next investors breakfast is scheduled for March, when it typically highlights new names and initiatives.
Looking forward, Engen said MEP may look to build on Missoula’s success nurturing “home-grown” tech companies. It may also look to outside firms that find value in the city’s quality of life and its workforce, something Engen attributed to the University of Montana’s liberal arts education.
It’s those values and the city’s progressive culture that convinced ClassPass to set up shop in Missoula. Landing the firm, which is looking to fill roughly 50 jobs with the possibility of adding more, will likely serve as Grunke’s final act as CEO.
“I think there are lots of companies out there looking for the attributes Missoula offers,” Engen said, noting several established businesses that call the city home. “We’re creating an economic ecosystem here of companies that like the brain power we have, and are able to exploit that brain power to export a clean, green product in the form of an app or service.”
Scott Burke, MEP’s board chairman, couldn’t be reached Friday for comment. But in the morning press release, he credited Grunke for leaving the organization on solid footing.
“James is a visionary leader who really established MEP as the hub of economic development in Missoula,” Burke said in the statement. “He made invaluable connections across the community and has left the organization in a wholly positive place for its next phase of growth.”