Big on projects, light on messaging: MRA looks to improve communications

City officials and economic leaders join DJ&A in a groundbreaking ceremony in this file photo. Tax increment financing provided by the Missoula Redevelopment Agency helped bring modern infrastructure to the project site, benefit it and future redevelopment. MRA has hired a communications team to help improve its messaging. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Saying it could do more to communicate challenging projects to the public and the benefits they create, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency this week approved a contract to hire a communications team to help with messaging.

The $46,000 contract was awarded to Six Pony Hitch.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding in the community with respect to what MRA does, how we do it, what tax increment financing is, how it can and should be used, and how it is used in Missoula,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “For some time we’ve talked about the need to create a communications plan for the agency.”

Under the contract, the communications firm will perform a number of tasks. It will gather input from elected officials and community stakeholders regarding their perceptions of MRA. It will also conduct research on how tax increment is used in other cities.

Buchanan said Six Pony Hitch already has an understanding of what MRA does and its various projects, from laying sidewalk infrastructure to funding utility upgrades.

“They’re a firm that’s very familiar with what MRA does and our history,” said Buchanan. “We’ve worked together on the Downtown Master Plan and on other projects that involved tax increment. The learning curve is pretty shallow in terms of what this agency would have to do to hit the ground running.”

The contract will also see Six Pony Hitch deliver a communications plan. Buchanan said that will include a strategy for the agency’s website and ways to engage the public on social media.

“Our website has a whole lot of information on it, but it’s not necessarily as digestible as it could be,” she said. “We do a lot of things really well as a staff. We’re technical writers, technical communicators and project managers, and we get complicated projects done. But we’re not necessarily the ultimate communicators.”

MRA plays an often misunderstood role in various redevelopment projects. The agency’s investments have helped bring new amenities and jobs to Missoula, and its various projects have helped expand the city’s tax base.

But tax increment financing is difficult to understand and as a result, it has become a political hot potato in recent years. Advocates of the program believe the public benefits have been missing from the discussion.

“A significant portion of the population doesn’t understand the tool we call TIF, how we use the tool and how the public benefits from these investments,” Buchanan said. “There is a long list of projects that have been made possible or made better through the investment of TIF dollars.”

MRA isn’t the only city agency with a messaging problem, which is something the city of Missoula is actively working to address.

The city’s communications arm recently issued a request for proposals and has compiled a list of “pre-qualified” firms with various skills that other city agencies can hire to build their communications plan and bolster public outreach.

“It fits in with what we’ve been trying to do at the city, very concertedly over the past year, to professionalize our communications and to realize that we need outside help,” said Ginny Merriam, the city’s communications director. “We’ve been talking about this seriously for a year, and I think it’s time to start.”