Missoula business leaders: State must preserve economic development program

Local recipients of Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund grants in Missoula have been wide ranging over the past few years, from an upstart home manufacturing firm to a film studio, both of which used the funding to create new jobs.

But the economic development program administered by the Montana Department of Commerce may become the latest in a growing list of services to face the chopping block as the state tightens the reins on fiscal spending.

And that could place Missoula and much of Montana at a disadvantage when it comes to economic development.

“Unfortunately, this program is under threat right now as our state looks for alternative sources of revenue to offset its budget deficit,” said Nicol Rush, the grants administrator with Missoula Economic Partnership. “We actually anticipate having to defend this program during the 2019 session.”

The Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund provides state grants to qualified businesses to promote stable economic growth, including job creation and planning. The program is managed locally by MEP and Missoula County, which are currently managing around $1.8 million to help 13 local companies created 252 new jobs.

The funding reimburses those businesses for expansion costs and is only awarded to firms that export a product and pay a living wage. In Missoula County, that’s considered to be $39,498 a year, or $18.99 an hour.

“This program benefits a wide range of companies in a wide range of sizes,” Rush said. “We currently have an even mix of grants helping small businesses, large employers and those in the startup phase, where we’re not really sure how big they’ll end up being.”

Local recipients have included Tru-Home Montana, which builds stick-built module homes near Bonner, and Synema Studio, a local video-production company looking to make a play in the growing online video space.

Other local recipients have included the Audience Awards, Modern Entrepreneur, Orbital Shift, VIM & VIGR and Advanced Technology Group, among others.

“It’s one of our most important tools in helping our existing businesses expand and in attracting new businesses to Missoula,” said Rush. “When (we) are working with a company to try and convince them to chose Missoula, we’re often competing against other sates that have a wider variety of incentives to offer. So it’s important that we try to preserve the programs we have in place.”

Despite the program’s ability to incentivize economic development, it faces an uncertain future. During the last special session of the Legislature, state lawmakers culled all reserve funding from the program.

“That essentially put all new applications on hold until the new fiscal year begins in July,” Rush said. “Going forward, new applicants will be competing against every other community in Montana for a much smaller pot of funding.”

Rush said MEP will contact the program’s beneficiaries and ask them to testify before the Legislature in a plea to keep the program funded. She urged other local leaders to do the same.

“This program assists businesses in expanding,” Rush said. “It enhances and expands our economic base to help create new jobs. It’s a valuable program.”