By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

The Missoula Chamber of Commerce and the City Council are looking to improve communications, saying better ties and regular contact could help council members formulate policies that consider the needs of local businesses.

“When I go to Chamber meetings, I hear all sorts of things where they're concerned about traffic and transportation, development and zoning,” said Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong. “I'd like (the Chamber) to come in quarterly and give us an update on Chamber activities on where they're stimulating development and where they think we should be focusing more.”

Clint Burson, director of government affairs for the Chamber, said the Missoula organization is tracking a number of bills through the Legislature, including those surrounding Tax Increment Financing and air service development.

The chamber is likely to back a House bill that would establish a grant to help Montana airports – including Missoula International – offer incentives to airlines to attract or expand regional air service.

“There's a federal program that does much of the same thing, but the budget has been going down year after year,” Burson said. “It started at $10 million and it's down to $5 million a year. When you look at all the small airports around the country competing for $5 million, it's not a lot of money.”

As proposed, the state program would increase Montana's rental car tax from 4 percent to 5 percent to build a fund of $3 million. That would enable airports to provide revenue guarantees to airlines to attract or expand air service.

“They also offer money for marketing new or expanded services, and other miscellaneous things like baggage handling and other airport expenses,” Burson said. “It's aimed at bringing in more flights, more carriers and, hopefully, bringing prices down to make it easier for people to travel in and out of Missoula.”

Ward 1 council member Jordan Hess asked if the chamber planned to take an active role in finding partners to help Mountain Line continue zero fare bus service.

An advocate of public transportation, Hess said revenues forfeited by Mountain Line's zero fare initiative were back-filled by 14 community partners, including $100,000 annually from the city and roughly $200,000 from the University of Montana.

“It's a unique model in that we're subsidizing the fare box through voluntary contributions,” said Hess. “It's something that Mountain Line will be looking to make into an ongoing offering. But it would require partners throughout the community, and the Chamber's network could be a useful tool in finding that financial contribution.”

Burson said it would be difficult for the Chamber to contribute to zero fare directly given its tight budget. But if asked, he said, the Board of Directors may consider helping drum up partnerships.

“We're more than happy to share that kind of information with our members,” Burson said. “I don't think the Chamber is against transit in any way, shape or form. The opportunity for a partnership and how we can help out hasn't been extended to us.”

Clint Burson
Clint Burson

Burson said the Chamber is also working in partnership with the Missoula Organization of Realtors on its upcoming workforce housing study. It has also partnered with the Missoula Economic Partnership on its parallel workforce study.

While much of Burson's presentation served as a general economic update, he took the opportunity to scold members of the council for funding a plotter at the Missoula City Cemetery. He said the effort threatened to undercut local businesses already providing the service.

“In general, the Chamber is going to be against government getting involved in a private industry  sector,” Burson said. “This is one where the public is currently being served by the private industry, and the ability of the cemetery to undercut those prices is unfair competition.”

In response, Armstrong said the move stemmed from concerns of the Missoula Cemetery Board over the quality of recent work.

Minutes from recent board meetings have called it “quality control.” The minutes also suggest that the plotter cost $11,785 and $5,000 was allocated by the City Council to train employees on using it.

“There has been some dissatisfaction with some of the work product of the local vendors,” said Armstrong. “It's not a slight toward our local businesses. They (the cemetery) owned the plotter. They've had it for years and it's a service they used to provide years and years ago. They came to us to ask for training money to run the plotter. We gave them the go-ahead.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at