Founder of Missoula startup maps TIF projects as show of impact

Nick Shontz, founder of Geofli in Missoula, recently completed a GIS map of nearly every tax increment financing project completed in Missoula over the past few decades, including those along Front Street, pictured. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When the Missoula Redevelopment Agency invested $324,000 to install sidewalks in a Midtown neighborhood in 2017, the project gained little public attention.

When it invested $35,000 to help the Missoula Food Bank prepare for its new facility in 2016, the contribution hardly made headlines.

But Nick Shontz took note.

The founder of the Missoula technology startup Geofli spent much of September exporting data provided by MRA for a new website launched last month. The result is a nearly complete map of nearly every MRA project completed over the last few decades.

“For a long time, Missoula has been talking about Tax Increment Financing and the projects,” said Shontz. “One of the things I’ve always struggled with is that it’s hard to find information on those projects, other than the big ones you hear about in the news.”

While MRA has invested in its share of larger projects, growing the city’s tax base along the way, most of its work has gone toward public infrastructure, from utility lines to new sidewalks.

It applied TIF funding to complete a new connector street between Brooks and Reserve, and it helped fund upgrades ahead of a workforce housing project off Scott Street. It has help fund construction of new parking garages, and last year, it invested in a water main extension off River Road.

“In my neighborhood, TIF paid for a bunch of sidewalks, which is something we’ve always struggled with,” said Shontz. “It paid for bus stop improvements so people don’t have to sit in the rain waiting for the bus.”

While the city has struggled to articulate the role tax increment financing plays in growing Missoula, Shontz decided to do what he could to educate the public.

The citizen-initiated effort began with a PDF of projects completed by MRA dating back to its first Urban Renewal District in downtown Missoula. Shontz exported the data to a table and applied his tech skills, using GIS to map each location.

While the initial results remain a little raw, Shontz admitted, he sees it as a good first step.

“I thought that getting something out there was better than waiting until it’s perfect,” he said. “The greater goal was just transparency. TIF is the one way Missoula has to invest in itself and leverage public-private partnerships. There’s a lot of misinformation on where TIF funding comes from and how it’s used.”

Nick Shontz

Over the past few weeks, Shontz’ map of TIF projects across Missoula has made the rounds on social media, gaining attention along the way. Members of the Missoula City Council have noted the work, and most admit the city can do more to promote the role TIF plays across the community.

Ellen Buchanan, executive director of MRA, said Shontz’ effort may have value.

“I’ve seen early versions, and I think it’s pretty interesting,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s something we’d take over, but it’s something we might consider doing.”

Buchanan said TIF is never static. She described it as a work in progress, one that’s always changing. But she lauded Shontz’ effort and sees value in the concept he’s created.

While the site is up and running, the information remains incomplete, and given the number of mapped projects, it can be difficult to navigate. But Shontz sees value in the information, regardless of who presents the data.

“I do think flushing out that content is going to be important,” he said. “I’d happily give it to (MRA) for free. I’m really interested in data transparency and producing data that’s usable. That was the big surprise to me, just how many projects there were and how many projects I didn’t know existed.”