Missoula Economic Partnership, UM and local government set course on collaboration

Grant Kier, executive director of the Missoula Economic Partnership, speaks to the organization’s goals to engage in stronger collaboration with community partners during Wednesday’s biannual meeting with members and investors. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

It took an “extraordinary” set of circumstances for Glacial Lake Missoula to leave traces of an ancient shoreline 500 feet above the floor of the Missoula Valley.

A similar set of circumstances has left Missoula with a thriving economy, one Grant Kier predicts will have generational impacts and lead to stronger ties between the city’s premier institutions.

“If economic development is anything, it’s about making sure the children that grow up in our town, in our state, have every opportunity to take their skills and build on that,” Kier said. “If they’re willing to put their energy and their efforts to work in our community to make it stronger, we as a community will give them a platform to succeed.”

Kier, the new executive director of the Missoula Economic Partnership, joined University of Montana President Seth Bodnar early Wednesday in addressing the organization’s members.

While the bi-annual event included no new announcements, it did signal a shift toward a stronger collaboration between MEP, the university and local government, including the city and the county.

“Missoula makes the University of Montana the great university it is, and the partnerships we have with the community members, businesses and nonprofits are tremendously important,” Bodnar said. “We’re going to be one university and one city.”

Those efforts began to take shape earlier this year when Scott Whittenburg, vice president for research and creative scholarship, announced plans to create an “innovation corridor” across Missoula, connecting elements of research and technology, academics and entrepreneurship.

The pieces are already in place with joint master planning taking place between the city and UM, and technical assistance provided by a number of organizations, including Blackstone LaunchPad, the Montana Small Business Development Center, the Montana World Trade Center, and the Procurement Technical Assistance Center, among others.

It also includes Accelerate Montana and the Montana Technology Enterprise Center.

“We have more than 20 exciting startups spanning life sciences, education technology, drones and software-to-service companies that are housed at MonTEC that need a good place to get their business started, and the university provides that,” Bodnar said. “I’m very optimistic about where we are, what we’ve done and where we’re headed.”

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar told a room of economic boosters that “We’re going to be one university and one city” on Wednesday during Missoula Economic Partnership’s biannual membership meeting. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Bodnar and Kier cited a number of recent and now-familiar successes, including the arrival of 4Cast and ClassPass, which recently announced plans to grow its local workforce to 175 employees in downtown Missoula.

But Advanced Technology Group, recently acquired by Cognizant, took center stage for its number of potential jobs, its Missoula roots and its growing ties to the university. The company recently hired its 100th UM graduate – a trajectory that exemplifies Missoula’s future, Kier said.

“The way we do business matters to the world – it can change the world – and that should tell us something about what we’re doing right in Missoula,” Kier said. “We do things differently in Missoula, and sometimes we take heat for that. But it sets us apart, and people are taking notice. That’s a tremendous opportunity for us to move forward, not just at MEP, but as a whole community.”

As a partner in economic development, Bodnar said, the university plays a key role in shaping the future, from innovation to research, and developing a talented workforce.

That commitment has gained attention over the past year, he said, and it played a role in attracting the likes of ClassPass and Cognizant to invest in Missoula. It also has helped local entrepreneurs launch successful small businesses, from Conflux Brewing to Montana Adventure Shuttles.

“We have talented people who come out of this university and love this community and want to stay, and that’s really important for a company like Cognizant that wants to grow jobs here and have a great talent pipeline,” Bodnar said. “We are the key engine for talent development in Missoula, and we are very focused on shaping educated, informed citizens who can engage in thoughtful, productive and respectful discourse.”