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Missoula business leaders express post-pandemic optimism; interest in relocating high

The Montgomery Distillery’s 23 employees are working the same hours they did in 2019. Other Missoula businesses also have endured, something Ryan Montgomery, pictured with Sen. Jon Tester, attributes to timely federal assistance. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When the Montgomery Distillery closed its doors last spring, like many local businesses, the future became uncertain. Revenue fell to zero but expenses lingered, pandemic or not.

Nearly a year later, the popular downtown distillery is on firm footing and its 23 employees are working the same hours they did in 2019. Other businesses also have endured, something Ryan Montgomery attributes to timely federal assistance.

“It wasn’t a recession or the result of bad business practices by any particular business,” he said. “It was external and had nothing to do with how well or not the business was run. I feel it was appropriate for the federal government to offer assistance.”

According to the Downtown Missoula Partnership, 21 new businesses opened in the downtown area in 2020 while 10 closed. Only one of those closures was attributed to the pandemic.

Business owners and economic leaders in Missoula believe various relief efforts, including the Paycheck Protection Program and other Small Business Administration grants, helped many Main Street businesses survive the past year.

Now, with the pandemic slowly waning, the economic outlook in Missoula appears strong.

“Going into spring, they really do see a path to recovering fully and getting back to business as usual,” said Grant Kier, president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership. “The workforce challenges we’re facing are real, but I see a lot of optimism and confidence in our business community that we’ll get through this.”

How the rebound unfolds – and how quickly – could depend upon the evolution of Missoula’s labor force. The statewide unemployment rate fell to 3.8% in March while in Missoula it sat at 4.4%.

Grant Kier, president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership, said “We’re seeing interest in bringing new businesses to Missoula at unprecedented levels during my time at MEP.” (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Kier said preliminary data suggests that people who got laid off during the pandemic have either returned to their original job or found another job. What’s left isn’t enough people to meet current labor needs.

The figures also suggest that Missoula County was one of the first counties to fully recover and surpass the total number of people who were employed before the pandemic. But still, help wanted signs have popped up at locations across the city.

“Right now, we’re just facing this incredible crunch where we don’t have a lot of capacity, but we have everyone trying to hire for summer employment or get reopened again,” Kier said. “There’s this tough balancing act, and we think it will take several months to settle out.”

During the pandemic, businesses around Missoula did what they could to keep workers on staff and keep sales going. Logjam Presents set up an internal fund to continue paying workers during last year’s closure.

Other businesses made a shift to online orders, curbside pickup and delivery. The Montgomery Distillery set aside its distilling and began producing hand sanitizer.

“It allowed us to keep our employees employed and continue to do what we do here,” Montgomery said. “We tried the best we could to keep ourselves busy and help any way we could. But ultimately, every business wants to get back to the reason they got into business in the first place.”

Kier said businesses across Missoula have expressed growing optimism about the days ahead and their ability to recover from the depths of the pandemic and its economic toll.

At MEP, which in part works to attract new businesses to Missoula, the phone has begun to ring again. Interest in the city is high, Kier said.

“As of six weeks ago, we’re seeing interest in bringing new businesses to Missoula at unprecedented levels during my time at MEP,” Kier said. “We’re starting to see our local business community anticipate and plan for growth again. It’s exciting indicators that the future is still really positive here.”