Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A simple effort to renew a contract with the city's economic development partner failed to advance on Wednesday after City Council member Daniel Carlino sought to cut the contracted funding amount and offer other amendments to keep it from advancing.

For a decade or more, the city has contracted with the Missoula Economic Partnership to bring business and jobs to the community. The organization has been successful in growing the city's economy and, more recently, it has been a strong advocate for the construction of workforce and affordable housing.

Both the city and county each provide MEP roughly $100,000 a year to sustain the work – a figure that has remained unchanged for years. But Carlino sought to cut that amount to $50,000 and divert the remainder to a range of social programs.

“Think about all these awesome programs that our city created that we have no money for, yet we're giving an unnecessarily high amount to have this (economic) partnership,” Carlino said.

His amendment to cut the amount failed on a 9-2 vote, with nearly all council members calling it short sighted. In recent years – and given the current composition of City Council – economic development gets little attention. Some contend that economic growth is viewed by several council members with disdain.

“My time on council, I've been surprise at how little we talk about economic development and business,” said council member Mike Nugent. “I find a lot of times when business comes up in these conversations, it's almost with disdain. It would be a mistake to go back on a long-time partnership we've had with a group that's doing good work in helping create stable jobs, helping people find and afford housing.”

Grant Kier, president of MEP, said the organization has evolved over the past few years in response to the pandemic to focus on other community needs. After a public engagement process, MEP created a new comprehensive economic development strategy that looked toward housing and growing existing businesses.

“Right now, that's really shifted a lot of our priorities from what traditionally we did with business attraction and trying to create new jobs by bringing companies into town, to really helping businesses grow,” he said.

“A big part of that has been leaning into affordable housing and workforce housing, and playing a role in trying to expedite the delivery of housing in our community,” Kier added. “This is an important way the public and private sector work together to achieve community goals.”

The organization has the broad support of most council members.

“We need targeted economic growth and MEP provides that to us,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “I think it's important to have those with that area of expertise, that set of tools, to help us grow economically.”

The City Council will try again next week to ratify the contract.