Fee: Missoula’s economy must diversify to grow

Jeff Fee

By Jeff Fee

In my five plus years as the chair of the Missoula Economic Partnership Board of Directors, I have witnessed Missoula become a community where new businesses are welcome – and thrive.

When I arrived here in 2006, the term “economic development” was met with skepticism, and many Missoulians resisted the expansion opportunities needed to attract emerging businesses. We had pieces and parts, but we needed a solid foundation of components to build upon.

Back then, the Stimson Lumber Co. and Smurfit Stone closed their mills, putting hundreds of our friends and neighbors out of work. There were few other industries to which millworkers could look for alternative employment.

The reality was clear: if our community was not growing, it was dying. The Bonner plant’s shutdown created a ripple effect across the local economy, from equipment retailers to grocery stores and other ancillary businesses. The global economic recession further compounded the losses, and Missoula’s business leaders realized it was time to develop a new private/public approach.

Out of this need, the Missoula Economic Partnership was born, bringing Missoula’s job creators and stakeholders – from both public and private sectors – to the table to lead the economic development effort. Instead of relying largely on the volatile market conditions of one industry, Missoula took charge of its future.

We have accomplished much over these five years, and now face a different set of challenges. Unemployment has dropped from a peak of 8.6 percent in 2011 to 3.5 percent in August 2016, resulting in a shortage of workers for businesses creating new jobs.

Like other U.S cities, Missoula’s economic base has shifted away from natural resources towards a more diversified economy. We needed to diversify in order to responsibly grow.

Accordingly, MEP formally approved a new strategic plan in September focusing on three clear goals: facilitate the creation of 3,000 new jobs in Missoula County, at or above the average county wage ($17.70/hour in 2016); cultivate $300 million in new capital investment in Missoula County; and address the barriers to business development and workforce attraction.

In the years ahead, MEP’s strategic initiatives will work to augment economic development incentives within local, state and federal governments. We will address Missoula’s development barriers, including the lack of air service, absence of shovel-ready industrial sites, and shortage of affordable workforce housing.

With each initiative, we will further position Missoula as the best place in the Northwest to live and do business.

We have identified three priority industries upon which to focus our business retention, expansion and attraction efforts – all intended to diversify the local economy: technology and data, biotech and life sciences, and advanced manufacturing.

MEP always looks for opportunities in other industries and will continue to collaborate with the larger Missoula community to ensure a consistent economic vision.

Through partnerships among our board of directors, investors, and strategic partners, we have all the tools necessary to realize our vision. Creating economic prosperity for everyone in Missoula is the right thing to do, and I have confidence in our ability to work toward – and ultimately reach – that goal.

We are so fortunate to live in this beautiful place. Thank you for the opportunity to serve the business community in my role at MEP, and for your partnership in this effort. If the accomplishments we’ve achieved together over the past five years are indicative of what’s to come, Missoula’s future is bright.

Jeff Fee is chair of the Missoula Economic Partnership Board of Directors, which provides a monthly column to the local media.