“This is about prosperity:” City leaders welcome Cognizant with eye on job growth

City leaders and local employees this week praised Cognizant’s acquisition of ATG in Missoula, saying it could serve as a model for future job growth and greater economic collaboration across the Garden City. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The opening of Cognizant ATG’s new downtown office on Wednesday drew praise from state and city leaders, with Gov. Steve Bullock predicting a friendly tech rivalry brewing between Missoula and Bozeman.

Behind the scenes, Missoula city leaders also considered the success that led ATG to locate in Missoula back in 2011, and the local partnerships that made it an attractive acquisition by Cognizant with its plans for additional growth.

“We don’t have a lot of tools to recruit companies, but what we do have is an amazing location, fantastic people, a functioning local government, the University of Montana and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency,” said City Council member Gwen Jones. “Those are our tools where we can help create the right ecosystem to bring companies here and grow the companies we have.”

The role of local government may be limited in its ability to recruit private companies to Missoula with their high-paying jobs. But strategic investment in local infrastructure and laying the groundwork for economic growth fall directly under the purview of city government.

It’s there, members of the City Council agreed, where they can have the greatest impact in supporting and sustaining the local business community. The arrival of Cognizant, listed as a Fortune 200 company, is a step in the right direction.

“The most important thing we can do as a city is to make sure we have a community that has opportunities for recreation and education, a transit system, a road system,” said council member Stacie Anderson.

“All those things are the building blocks for a community, and they’re under the purview of City Council,” she said. “It’s our job to make sure we’re executing on those as well as we can so that when companies like Cognizant look at coming to Missoula, they see a strong community that has the building blocks in place.”

Cognizant’s acquisition of ATG last September marked the second major tech announcement in Missoula that month. ClassPass also announced its move to the First Interstate Bank building downtown, where it plans to grow its local workforce to 175 employees.

Cognizant itself has stated its intention to add 25,000 employees in the U.S. over the next five years, and a growing number of those will be located in Missoula. It’s not by accident that Cognizant has the Garden City in its future, city leaders believe.

“There are lots of success stories in Missoula, and those success stories are happening at an increased rate,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said. “Things have changed and they’ve changed dramatically, and in my estimation, they’ve changed for the better. At the end of the day, this is about prosperity.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen, right, and University of Montana President Seth Bodnar, left, both see new opportunities to work together to attract businesses to Missoula and grow the local workforce. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Last May, five months before Cognizant appeared on the scene, ATG revealed its plans to the Missoula Current to leave its collection of Main Street offices for a new home in the Old Sawmill District.

The district itself was years in the making, though its developers have since transformed what once served as an abandoned industrial site into a modern extension of downtown Missoula. The city invested heavily into laying the infrastructure that made the development possible.

That was completed by using Tax Increment Financing through the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. While the program is at times controversial, members of the City Council see the city’s investment in the Old Sawmill District as a success, and another example of what they can do to make Missoula attractive to outside businesses.

“The Old Sawmill District is a great use of TIF dollars, and it’s one of the few uses of TIF money I’d fully support again,” said council member Jesse Ramos. “The city was able to come in and do what I think is the core responsibility of government – to put in roads and infrastructure so the businesses can come in where those costs aren’t put on them. This is a good example of TIF done right.”

Some city leaders also believe local government could do more to recruit outside businesses if given the opportunity. That includes tax abatement and tax incentives, something that’s not currently authorized by state law.

That leaves Missoula at a disadvantage when competing with cities in other states, where such options are on the table.

“We should be able to do more than we’re allowed to do,” said council member Julie Armstrong. “We should be offering tax abatement and tax incentives. Although it reduces the tax base, they’ll come in and pay good salaries. Most of those employees will buy homes, pay property taxes and spend 70 percent back into the community.”

Leslie Wetherbee, one of the developers with the Old Sawmill District, joins the official opening of Cognizant ATG’s new office in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

While those options aren’t on the table, Armstrong believes the city can still pursue other options with an eye on economic growth. That includes demonstrating to prospective businesses the operational savings they could achieve by locating to Missoula.

The Missoula Economic Partnership also has a role to play, she added. MEP helped bring ClassPass to Missoula, and it’s had a hand in growing the number of flights from Missoula International Airport – itself a lucrative business incentive.

“We have a brand new director at MEP (Grant Kier) and they have plans to drastically change the way they’re courting companies to come in,” Armstrong said. “Hopefully that will be much more in line with what other states and communities are doing to attract businesses.

“I’m not saying what they did before was wrong,” she added. “But I think they were learning the best practices, and now they’ll implement those practices.”

Gov. Steve Bullock told the Missoula Current that Missoula is uniquely poised for growth in the high-tech sector, and the presence of the University of Montana will weigh heavily in fostering local job growth by training a workforce to today’s economy.

Armstrong agreed and said Missoula, as a community, will continue to evolve, even while some look to hold it back.

“Missoula is going to change no matter how you feel about it,” she said. “You either have the ability to control it and curate it, or you just sit back and let it happen.

“I think it’s our role as legislators and business leaders to create a hospitable environment with guard rails. Offering people an incredible quality of life by moving to Missoula has significant benefits and pays dividends in the long run.”

Cognizant ATG opens innovation hub in old Sawmill District