Grunke: Opportunities for revitalization after cleanup

James Grunke

It is a remarkable time to be in Missoula.

Record investment into our community continues and the downtown core continues to transform. Beginning with the Stockman Bank building, the revitalization of the Old Sawmill District with the creation of an urban neighborhood, the ROAM Student Living Project on Front Street and the new Marriott emerging out of the ground where the old Missoula Mercantile was, has changed the landscape of downtown, with much more to come.

A new downtown library and the Hotel Fox Partners’ planned hotel, condominiums and 60,000-square-foot conference center at the Riverfront Triangle will continue to spur Missoula’s growth. And downtown is not the only area experiencing profound revitalization.

However, sometimes it takes another perspective to fully appreciate what is underway and the many positive stories that are occurring everyday in Missoula. Recently, Steve Nelson of Bonner Property Development, Nick Kaufman of WGM Group and I were invited by the Lincoln County Port Authority and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to come to Libby to be on a panel and participate in a community discussion about the next steps now that cleanup is nearing completion.

After nearly 20 years of work, and hundreds of millions of dollars, the asbestos cleanup in Libby is nearly over and it is time to think revitalization. The Port Authority controls the nearly 500 acres of the former Stimson mill site and it is time to put the land back into production. I was excited to participate because I wanted to learn from what they have done in Libby. Missoula County has its own property that is a possible Superfund site and as an economic development organization we want to see the land put into back into production. The Libby site is going to be the first Superfund site in all of Montana to be delisted, so clearly there are lessons to be learned.

Nelson was invited because he and his partner, Mike Boehme, are responsible for the revitalization of the Bonner mill site. Kaufman was invited due to his exceptional career in land use planning in Montana. I think what struck us as remarkable was the vibrancy, the energy and the pride of all the citizens we met in Libby. They are proud of who they are, where they live and have a profound sense of community. They are, however, worried about what their future looks like. The clean site and can-do attitude presents a tremendous opportunity for Libby.

One of the other assets that we also noticed was the strong spirit of entrepreneurship. This is consistent with a recent study conducted by Stephan Weiler, professor of economics, Colorado State University; Tessa Conroy and Steve Deller, professors of economics, University of Wisconsin-Madison where they concluded:

“The United States’ continuing economic dominance is perhaps most attributable to the very smallest elements of its economy: its entrepreneurial start-ups. Nearly 700,000 new job-creating businesses open each year. That’s almost 2,000 every day, each helping to create new market niches in the global economy.

Most people mistakenly believe these pioneering establishments occur in overwhelmingly in metropolitan areas, such as in the now-mythic start-up culture of Silicon Valley.

Yet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it is in fact non-metropolitan counties that have higher rates of self-employed business proprietors than their metropolitan counterparts.

Furthermore, the more rural the county, the higher its level of entrepreneurship. Some of these counties have a farming legacy — perhaps the most entrepreneurial of occupations — but farmers represent less than one-sixth of business owners in non-metro areas. Even for non-farm enterprises, rural entrepreneurship rates are higher.

The reality is that rural areas have to be entrepreneurial, as industries with concentrations of wage and salary jobs are necessarily scarce.

Start-up businesses have notoriously difficult survival prospects. So it is perhaps even more surprising that relatively isolated non-metropolitan businesses are on average more resilient than their metro cousins, despite the considerable economic advantages of urban areas, which boast a denser networks of workers, suppliers and markets. The resilience of rural start-ups is perhaps due to more cautious business practices in areas with few alternative employment options.”

These lessons also apply to the role of entrepreneurship in Missoula, in Libby and across the state, and are consistent with why Montana continues to be named the number one state for entrepreneurial activity. Locally, start-ups are generating the largest job growth areas here in Missoula. Sometimes it takes seeing the great work being done in another community to recognize the great growth that is occurring in our own. While we have much to be proud of here in Missoula, there is much more to do together to continue making our remarkable place remarkable.

James Grunke is chief executive officer of the Missoula Economic Partnership. He writes a monthly column for the Missoula Current.