Missoula Economic Partnership expands focus beyond business attraction

Grant Kier, president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership, left, speaks at groundbreaking ceremony earlier this week for High Country’s new 69,000-square-foot Coca-Cola bottling facility. MEP plans to expand its focus beyond its traditional economic roots. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When Grant Kier was scanning a draft version of Missoula’s new Downtown Master Plan, he came across a graph defining economic development as expanding businesses and attracting new ones.

While it remains central to the mission driving the Missoula Economic Partnership, Kier believes economic development goes beyond those two flagship goals.

“We have traditionally talked a lot about jobs and the economy,” said Kier. “But fundamentally, I think we’re all in the same work together, and that’s how we give human beings in our community an opportunity to put their efforts and passions into opportunities and challenges that give them meaning in their life. That’s what we’re trying to do when we do our work at MEP.”

Keir, the organization’s president and CEO, gave members of the Missoula City Council an economic update on Wednesday. The organization is expanding its focus beyond business attraction to tap what Kier sees as the deeper elements of economic development.

Among them, the organization looks to serve more as a facilitator between the community and outside opportunities. That includes finding ways to fund community needs and assets by attracting private capital into projects that carry a public benefit.

Opportunity funds and the city’s new opportunity zone along the West Broadway corridor could serve as one, he said.

“We think we can play a role as facilitators to try and create opportunities for the right players to come to the table and either acquire or identify capital and real estate opportunities that can help us achieve some of our collective community goals,” he said.

MEP joined the University of Montana last month in hosting the InnovateUM conference, where opportunity zones played a central theme. The annual conference looks to blur the lines between traditional institutions, including UM, the city and local businesses, to achieve greater community outcomes.

MEP is now moving to a new downtown office, where it looks to raise its profile and engage in wider community dialogue – another element of its newly refined mission.

“We’d like to use the space to continue the conversation on how to use opportunity zones as a tool, to address issues like workforce housing and businesses along that corridor,” said Lindsay Wallace with MEP. “Our goal is to use that office space to build community.”

While MEP adjusts its focus to touch on housing and other local challenges, it will continue to work on behalf of businesses, including those looking for state grants to grow their local workforce.

Nicole Rush, the grants administrator with MEP, said 24 companies in Missoula have used the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund program to create 532 jobs since 2013. Together, they’ve collectively received $3.7 million in funding and now pay $20.6 million annually in new wages.

The grants are administered locally by MEP and Missoula County and awarded to firms that pay 170 percent of Montana’s minimum wage. To receive the highest funding award, Rush said, they have to pay more than the median wage in Missoula County, which stands at $19.65 an hour.

“It remains probably the best tool we have to help existing companies expand in Missoula, and in terms of attracting new companies to come here,” Rush said. “Looking ahead into the next round of applications, I have six companies interested. Over the next year, we think those companies might create 400 new jobs. It’s a good indicator of the amount of jobs being created in Missoula.”

While Kier sees potential in a number of local industries, including businesses rooted in the biosciences, tech has emerged with the greatest immediate potential.

It’s no accident a new MEP promotional video for Missoula highlights a UM graduate and employee of Cognizant ATG.

“It’s a new and emerging sector in our community that has a lot of potential to grow,” Kier said. “It’s being perceived as one sector with a unified front. I don’t think people are realizing how many people are moving into those jobs and succeeding in ways they didn’t feel they could succeed in this world before.”