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MEP guiding Missoula’s economic recovery with focus on key industries, jobs and development

Downtown Missoula sits surrounded by fall colors and a light haze on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. Through a combination of grants, outreach and planning, the Missoula Economic Partnership has helped the city’s key industries grow their workforce while also planning for development to aid in local business growth and retention. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

New businesses make for splashy headlines, and Missoula has landed its share of new companies over the past few years, from bicycle fabricators to digital services.

But Missoula Economic Partnership has found equal success in keeping the city’s existing businesses home and helping them grow, the organization’s president and CEO said this week.

“The thing that tends to get the most headlines is our business attraction work,” said Grant Kier. “But the truth is, the vast majority of our work is helping those companies that are already here.”

MEP was founded a decade ago during the Great Recession and the economic downtown that resulted. While outside forces played a heavy role, the city’s economy was already in the throes of change, evolving from its historic roots in the timber industry to something yet determined.

Over the coming years, Missoula would eventually find its new dress, shaking off its industrial past to slip into something a little more elegant. MEP has for the past few years called them “best fit” industries, or the type of companies the city would like to attract and grow.

They include technology, bioscience, high-value manufacturing and professional services – industries MEP will continue to recruit and retain.

“One, because we’re strong in those areas already and we have momentum,” Kier said. “Two, because they do a lot to lift our community up and achieve our fundamental mission – to raise our standard of living and increase people’s level of prosperity.”

MEP helped the city’s priority industries create 457 new jobs last year.

According to Kier, MEP helped the city’s priority industries create 457 new jobs last year. On average, those key industries paid an average annual income of around $50,800 a year, well above the average $43,000 annual wage for Missoula County.

While the dial hasn’t moved equally for all workers, Kier admits, the county’s progress on wages recently prompted the Montana Department of Commerce to withdraw Missoula’s designation as a “high poverty county,” meaning it no longer qualifies for certain funding.

Kier said it was too soon to know how the pandemic would affect that classification.

“We take very seriously where we were before COVID because we have every intention of not just getting back to that place quickly, but getting beyond it as fast as we can,” he said.

A number of tools have helped in the progress, including MEP’s focus on key industries and its growing partnership with the University of Montana and workforce training. MEP also met with investors over the summer to showcase development opportunities in Missoula. The results led the organization in September to express optimism that its outreach efforts would have results.

MEP has also helped local businesses navigate the pandemic by guiding them to CARES Act assistance.

But MEP also has capitalized off the Big Sky Trust Fund Grant, a program operated by the Montana Department of Commerce and managed locally by Missoula County. Over the past year, MEP secured $937,000 in funding to support the creation of 130 new jobs, including 34 at Cognizant-ATG and 31 at Consumer Direct Care Network.

But even smaller firms have grown their workforce through the program, including Botanic Soap, which added six new jobs, and Bedrock Sandals, which also added six new jobs.

Kier said MEP has also helped local businesses navigate the pandemic by guiding them to CARES Act assistance.

“At the end of last month, that grant assistance totaled almost $56 million,” Kier said. “As of last month, Missoula was leading the state in terms of our access to that funding. Our numbers prove that’s helped us rehire people and get people back to work quickly and in some cases, according to the Department of Labor, faster than any other county in the state.”

While progress is made on the employment front, MEP has turned an eye toward development as well, chasing down grants to help plan the future of several key properties in Missoula.

Among them, it secured a grant to take a closer look at the Montana Technology and Enterprise Center, which has been full for years. MEP and other business leaders would like to see the facility expanded, creating more opportunities to incubate upstart businesses.

“The bioscience industry is one that can expand in Montana and pays well, but those companies struggle with workforce and facilities,” Kier said. “We’re looking at MonTEC and what kind of demands there are, how it could be expanded and modified to help some of the companies that are growing there now continue to grow in place rather than having to go look for a new place. It could result, in our case, in companies leaving our community if they can’t find what they need here.”

Statistics suggest that Missoula has nearly regained all the jobs lost early in the COVID-19 pandemic and has more workers employed than at any other time in the city’s history.

Several years ago, local philanthropist Terry Payne entered into an agreement with the Missoula Public Library to exchange the 400 block of East Main, where the new library is set to open, for the 300 block, where the old library sits.

His donation of the downtown block to the city opened a range of possible redevelopment scenarios. MEP has secured a second grant to help determine the property’s future. Office space, in-place daycare and housing may top the list.

“One of the things we’ve heard from companies is how important it is for us to have workforce and mixed-use housing downtown, so some of these larger employers who are so eager to be part of our downtown culture have the ability to live and work in close proximity,” Kier said.

“We can contribute to development patterns that help our community address some of its challenges and help our businesses identify the kinds of facilities and infrastructure they’re going to need in the future, so Missoula continues to be a place where great companies can thrive and continue to be successful in the future.”