The new economy: Montana Dems explore Missoula’s business scene ahead of 2019 Legislature

The Montana Democratic Party’s House and Senate leadership, along with local party representatives, tour the KettleHouse Amphitheater in Missoula early Thursday to kick off their statewide tour ahead of the 2019 Legislature. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

As crews prepared the KettleHouse Amphitheater for another concert season on Thursday morning, a delegation of Montana Democrats began preparing their own platform for the 2019 Legislature, one aimed at jobs and the state’s new economy.

With the shadows still long in the Blackfoot Valley, members of the party’s leadership tour met business owner Nick Checota at the amphitheater gate, then spent the next hour talking business as they toured the facility.

Checota, owner of the Top Hat Lounge and The Wilma – and the amphitheater’s developer – said the workforce is tight, though Missoula’s entertainment and tourism industry is strong.

“When I bought the Top Hat, it was selling 5,000, maybe 6,000 tickets,” Checota told the delegation. “This year, we’ll probably do 180,000 tickets. We’ve already sold 40,000 tickets for this (amphitheater), so our overall ticket volume is probably in the $10 million range right now, just on the ticketing side.”

The delegation’s stop at the KettleHouse Amphitheater marked the first on a statewide tour aimed at a number of sectors as the Democratic Party begins crafting its legislative priorities ahead of next year’s session.

While in Missoula, the delegation also toured the Urban Indian Health Center and held a roundtable discussion with local technology businesses to discuss economic development.

“We wanted to get a sense of what’s bringing jobs to Missoula, what’s working here,” said Jenny Eck, the House Democratic leader from Helena. “As a caucus, we’re starting to think about our priority bills and how we want to shape those bills.”

Nick Checota, owner of Logjam Presents, pictured at right, leads Montana Democrats on a tour of the KettleHouse Amphitheater on Thursday. Pictured is Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, and Rep. Jenny Eck, D-Helena. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Checota detailed the nuances of the entertainment industry and the challenges he’s faced in finding skilled workers. Those with basic skills are generally snatched up by other sectors of the trade industry, though he has found success in landing University of Montana graduates to manage other areas of his business at Logjam Presents.

Checota said Logjam currently staffs 12 employees at its office, and 10 of them are products of the university’s entertainment management program. That tie between business and education sits high on the party’s list of priorities.

“The development of these types of businesses creates opportunities, and it’s our responsibility to have a university system that’s able to take advantage of these opportunities,” said Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula. “These kinds of new businesses in Missoula County are leading the way in terms of the direction the Montana economy is taking and the opportunities it’s creating.”

Earlier in the week, more than 100 community leaders from across Missoula gathered to discuss that very issue. The city’s economy is changing quickly, and collaboration between business, government and education will be needed to prepare today’s workers for tomorrow’s jobs.

“One of the things that’s really interesting about the economy is how rapidly the nature of work is changing,” Barrett said. “It’s just incredible. In that kind of environment, being nimble, adaptive and generally trained is really important. We need to prepare kids to function anywhere and be competitive anywhere.”

The state’s new economy also includes a growing tech sector and a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Montana has topped the charts for each of the past four years in the Kauffman Foundation’s national ranking of startup activity.

According to the 2016 report, Montana’s rate of new entrepreneurs ranked first among the nation’s 25 smaller states at .50 percent, equating to 500 new monthly startups per 100,000 residents.

The state also scored high in “opportunity share of new entrepreneurs” at more than 84 percent. The statistic measures the number of entrepreneurs who launched a business because they saw a market opportunity.

“These kind of tours are really important for us to get out and see what’s really going on on the ground, particular in the new developing economy we have,” said Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula.

“But our tax model needs to change to deal with the fact that we have these new sectors in the economy, and in terms of helping our educational systems make sure people are educated appropriately for these new jobs and these new emerging technologies.”