Missoula Economic Partnership sees opportunity for tech play as mission evolves

Scott Burke, chairman of the Missoula Economic Partnership’s Board of Directors, said the organization will select a new leader once the findings of a current report are released this summer. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When the Missoula Economic Partnership formed eight years ago, the term “economic development” was met with widespread skepticism, though that was about to change.

The market crashed and Stimson Lumber and Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. closed their plants, delivering a significant blow to the city’s economic prosperity.

The impacts rippled far and wide, serving as something of a wake-up call. It was time to get intentional about the city’s economic future.

“From my vantage point, coming from other communities where they were engaged long-term in economic development, I didn’t see that we as a community had done that,” said Jeff Fee, the interim leader of MEP. “If you’re not actively engaged in economic development, things will happen to you versus getting the right community leaders around the table and taking an active role in forming what our community looks like.”

While the crisis that came in the loss of two large employers has passed, MEP is again exploring its future role in shaping the city’s economic landscape. Its former president and CEO, James Grunke, resigned in January, presenting the organization with an opportunity to transform.

What form that transition takes will become clear this summer, once Garner Economics completes a deep analysis of the city’s economic landscape. The resulting Competitive Realities Report will help define who replaces Grunke and what skills they must bring to the table, Fee said.

“We want to know what our realities are relative to our competitive position in the economic development space,” Fee said. “We can’t assume what we know. We need some outside validation.”

What is known is that Missoula is a much different place than it was back in 2008, when it was dominated by yesteryear’s industries and reluctant to change. A growing tech sector has laid down roots, fed in part by the city’s educated workforce, its progressive vibe and much-sought-after quality of life.

While the new report will help identify what sectors MEP and its partners target for growth, Fee and others have a hunch that technology will emerge as an opportunity.

“I think we do have an opportunity for a tech play,” Fee said. “There’s enough opportunity and momentum in that particular space that we want to take a closer look at it and focus that discussion. We want to use that report to help us inform what it is we want to do moving forward.”

Over the past year, a number of tech companies have committed to Missoula and are poised for growth, including Advanced Technology Group, which now employs 126 workers and paid more than $8 million in wages last year.

Tom Stergios, senior vice president of strategy and corporate development at advanced Technology Group, has grown the Missoula office from two employees to more than 126 over the past six years. (Missoula Current file photo)

ClassPass, an international fitness company rooted in technology, also chose Missoula to open its third North American office, where it now plans to fill 150 positions over the next two years. Other successes aren’t hard to find, and the University of Montana and other community partners, including Blackfoot, are looking to establish a tech corridor in the heart of Missoula.

Whoever replaces Grunke will need to bring the right set of skills to the job, Fee said.

“If we do go back to our traditional leadership model and hire another executive director, it really does inform what kind of skillset we need when looking for a new executive director,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunities and we want to validate those assumptions.”

Scott Burke, chairman of MEP’s Board of Directors, said Grunke’s departure allowed MEP to take a step back and examine both its structure and its goals. Getting a clear picture of the future and Missoula’s economic opportunities will inform the organization’s next step.

“It provided us an opportunity to take a step back and see what we’re doing good, doing well, and what we could do differently or better,” Burke said. “We’ll get someone in here to replace (Grunke) just as quickly as we can once we figure out what the road map looks like.”

While MEP brought a strategic focus to economic development in Missoula eight years ago, Fee said the landscape has changed and the organization must keep abreast of both the challenges and opportunities.

Missoula competes nationally for economic development, and it needs to develop a national outlook.

“Growth is going to happen – America is growing and our state is growing, and if you’re not growing, you’re dying,” Fee said. “We want the right kind of growth, but in the absence of that intentionality, we’re just left to the wind and that’s contrary to what we’re trying to accomplish with MEP.”