Economic report identifies industries, strategies to give Missoula competitive edge

As Missoula looks to strengthen its business climate, local government and the city’s economic leaders must work proactively to set the community apart from its competitors, a report released Friday noted.

That could include building needed office space to house startups and funding the Missoula Economic Partnership at a rate that’s on par with similar organizations in cities of a similar size.

Completed by Garner Economics on behalf of MEP, the 135-page report notes the city’s strengths and challenges, and offers a suite of recommendations that would, if followed, give the city a competitive advantage.

“It’s a really good snapshot of all the economic development activities that have taken place over the last five years, really since the formation of MEP,” said Jenni Graff, the organization’s economic development director. “We know those recommendations would require significant effort, and we know it’s going to require a lot more conversations.”

The report analyzed 53 community variables and found that 19 were considered assets, 14 were challenges and 20 scored neutral. While assets included the availability of commercial air service and the cost of labor and vocational training, challenges included a lack of suitable office and industrial space.

According to the report, Missoula lacks office space for both start-up and second-stage technology companies, and it recommended that MEP advocate for the development of more suitable office space, preferably downtown.

“This would provide startups and second-stage companies opportunities to grow in the attractive Class A space and to attract and retain talent and grow their businesses,” the report recommends. “The development could be structured to encourage companies to find larger space as their operations expand and thrive.”

The report also recommends developing a “unified brand” for Missoula, and it encourages MEP to generate leads and target its business recruitment by focusing on site selectors and real estate brokers, which account for roughly 40 percent of all investment projects in the U.S.

It also suggested creating a “cadre of economic development ambassadors” to extend Missoula’s brand.

“The Missoula region is rich with business executives who travel the globe for their respective companies,” the report notes. “MEP should develop an ambassadors program to train willing business leaders to assist the organization in extending the brand of the region as a place to do business.”

Graff said MEP contracted Garner Economics in March to explore the dynamics of the local market and identify ways to advance the city’s economic development, including the retention of businesses that create jobs and the greatest opportunities.

The report identifies four sectors that represent “best fits” for Missoula, including those in the bio-sciences, creative services, technology and manufacturing, and the “experiential” economy.

“It’s a good way for us to look back and evaluate how we’ve been doing,” Graff said. “It’s a really concise, data-rich report that we’re going to use as a great tool going forward. We’re interested in furthering the conversation, and we’re using this as a catalyst to spur conversations in the community and inform our strategy.”

As part of that strategy, the report encouraged MEP to reorganize as a holding company led by a president or CEO who can work across the public and private sectors to build opportunities. MEP’s former CEO, James Grunke, resigned last year to take a new job, and the organization is holding off on naming a permanent replacement until it identifies its future mission.

The report also found that MEP’s promotional budget of just $45,000 was low compared to peer organizations. The organization’s operating budget of $700,000 was also low when compared to other economic development organizations.

In comparison, the report noted, the economic development organization in Great Falls has an operating budget of $1.5 million and a marketing budget of more than $200,000.

“I look forward as a Missoula Economic Partnership board member and as mayor to working with stakeholders to implement recommendations at a pace and scope that make sense for the organizations who work every day to make lives better for our friends and neighbors,” Mayor John Engen said. “We have opportunity aplenty and don’t want to waste it. It’s time for us to work together strategically and thoughtfully to put the report’s recommendations to work.”