With an economic development plan now in place, the Missoula Economic Partnership will focus on key challenges over the coming years as it works to move the city forward in what many are calling the new economy.

MEP unveiled its new strategic plan on Monday, which includes a keener focus on issues around land development, metrics, talent development and public engagement.

“A lot of things identified as goals in our economic development plan aren't things MEP can actually do,” said MEP president Grant Kier. “But now that we have a clear expression of the future vision of the community, we need to clearly spell out which parts of that MEP will take a leadership role and accountability in to deliver on the goals.”

The economic development plan released two years ago took a wider look at challenges and opportunities across Missoula, where the economic growth ranked among the top in the nation.

The Milken Institute ranked Missoula at No. 22 nationally for top performing small cities based upon such metrics as job creation and wage gains. Missoula also ranked among the top 15 metros in the country for economic recovery.

But despite the gains, Missoula is facing headwinds, not unlike other communities in the Rocky Mountain West.

“I'd argue most of our challenges right now are being victims of our own success,” Kier said. “Those challenges aren't surprises. The number one issue on the minds of our businesses is workforce. And we see key leading impacts on the workforce around hosing and childcare.”

Grant Kier
Grant Kier

Economic growth, population gain and a housing shortage have all collided in the form of rising costs. The median price of a home in Missoula topped $517,000 in December, and while wages have risen, they haven't kept pace with housing costs.

Economists began warning of the potential impacts on Missoula's wider economy years ago, saying businesses were facing new challenges in recruiting and retaining workers. That challenge has only grown as workers struggled to find and pay for housing in Missoula, and businesses struggle to keep good employees.

MEP has included the issue in its new strategic plan and it's something Kier said the organization will focus on over the coming years.

“What you'll see in this document, we realize there's an important pivot right now, where we need to do everything we can to think about things like housing and affordability and child care,” he said. “They're really impacting people and talent in a way that really impacts their daily lives, but also impacts the business community and our economy generally.”

The new plan also takes a deeper look at land development. While MEP can do little about infrastructure – that's a function of local government – it does believe it can negotiate deals to make better use of inner-city land holdings.

Missoula County late last year directed staff to review its own land holdings and report back with their potential for redevelopment, particularly around housing and the same public-private model that has been successful at the City of Missoula.

MEP also plans to address the issue, Kier said.

“We are underutilizing the full potential of some of our land use as a community,” Kier said. “We know we need to focus inward to achieve density, but in order to achieve that, there's some places in our community where we could make better use of space.”

MEP formed in 2010 and the organization has shifted its focus over the years in response to local trends and issues. Kier said its focus on a talent program and land development are new, as is the need to collect better data.

While some data is easily available, other data is harder to come by or doesn't exist. It could relate to minority business owners or how the city's median income breaks down into different demographics.

“Those are the kinds of things we want to understand better,” he said. “When we have accurate numbers, it won't be hiding trends that tell us that we may not be helping everyone do better in the community when we talk about policy.”