Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Housing, homelessness, infrastructure and education topped the list of issues on Monday during the annual State of the Community address.

Hosted by City Club Missoula, University of Montana President Seth Bodnar, Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier and Mayor Andrea Davis touched on the successes and challenges of a community in transition - one still rebounding from the pandemic.


Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said the county faces "hard and intractable issues," from tax reform to housing to the climate. While the list goes on, he said, progress is being made, including work around infrastructure.

Calling them emblematic of "transformation change," Strohmaier said a number of projects pursued by the county hold promise of regional and national impacts. Among them, the Highway 200 project through East Missoula has been taking shape for years but now has the backing of a $24 million federal grant.

“If you were to drive through there now, what you'd be greeted with is the Wild West of undifferentiated asphalt. It's a mess. It's anything that would resemble a Main Street we'd want to take pride in. For too long, this area has been overlooked," he said.

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.
Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The county received word of the grant approval in March. Plans for the corridor include streetscape improvements like bike lanes, sidewalks, boulevards and lighting. They also include a roundabout at the I-90 interchange and work on the railroad bridge, creating more room for both pedestrians and passing vehicles.

“It's all those elements that make for a beautiful, welcoming and attractive place we can call home. It's a transformational project,” Strohmaier said.

Strohmaier also serves as the chairman of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, which began as an idea four years ago and has grown ever since. The concept rose from the pandemic and saw a handful of other counties sign on, each with a similar goal of restoring passenger rail across Montana's southern tier on the old North Coast Hiawatha route.

In the years since its formation, the rail authority has expanded to 20 counties, representing a blend of politics, geography and need. It's now the largest transportation district in the state and it has achieved a number of accomplishments, including its inclusion in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which called for a study of discontinued Amtrak routes.

The North Coast Hiawatha is also one of the preferred routes that will be recommended for restoration to Congress later this year. Strohmaier said the effort is a demonstration of Montanans working across political beliefs to achieve a greater, common good.

“The rail authority was the sponsor of bringing in the North Coast Hiawatha route into the corridor identification program,” he said. “This is a new program of the U.S. Department of Transportation that puts us on a path for project development. It's not just a feasibility study. It's not just a set of recommendations. We're in the project development pipeline, and that's a big deal.”

Other infrastructure efforts headed by the county include planning for future development at the Wye.

The Griz "are on a role"

In each of the past few years, University of Montana President Seth Bodnar said the flagship institution has continued working to ensure its students are able to reach their full and unique potential.

While some universities boast about selectivity and how many students they turn away, UM has taken pride in its inclusivity, growth and academic achievement, from a recently named Rhodes Scholar to a top-tier research institution, something only a small portion of U.S. colleges have achieved.

“We know that a large number of folks making decisions about the future direction of our community have an education and sense of purpose that was, at least in part, cultivated at UM,” Bodnar said. “It's about fostering healthy, engaged communities.”

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
University of Montana President Seth Bodnar. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

While the university saw its challenges more than a decade ago, it has since turned the corner. For the second straight year, UM was named as the No. 1 university in the U.S. for public and community service. It was a founding intent when the university was created more than a century ago, Bodnar said.

UM also is in a firm period of growth. It saw its largest year-over-year enrollment growth in 14 years, bucking a national trend where college attendance is in decline. This fall's class also included 20% more Montanans than it did two years ago, and 20% more student veterans.

Since 2018, Native American enrollment has grown 30%, Bodnar added.

“You're going to hear a lot of university presidents brag about how selective they are, and they're so good they only select one out of 10 people that apply, as if somehow the fact they turn away 90% of their applicants means they provide a higher quality education. It's absolute baloney,” Bodnar said. “We will never measure our success by who we leave out. We measure our success by how well we enable every single person who comes through our doors to achieve their full potential.”

But the school's recent successes also look to a new wave of investment intended to improve the school's amenities. UM is investing in a new dining hall, renovated dorms, a new art museum and, if approved by the state, a new 600-bed residence hall.

“Two years ago we achieved a decades-long goal of achieving Research-1 status. Our research output has nearly doubled in the past seven years,” Bodnar said. “That research isn't just expanding the boundaries of human knowledge, it's creating hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact in our community, jobs and entire new companies.”


In her first state of the community address, Mayor Andrea Davis said the pandemic played a heavy hand in changing the social landscape, not only in Missoula but across the nation.

In many ways, she said, it has created a population of residents who are now struggling to secure basic services, from housing to health care. It also has taken an economic toll and the city is working to address the range of issues on a variety of fronts.

“We've seen changes socially, we've seen changes economically,” Davis said. “Most notably, we've seen significant changes with housing pressure. We're still working through all of that.”

Davis said many are struggling to stay housed, and to secure mental and physical health care. The city's shelter system is racing to keep pace with the need, but there's only so much funding to go around.

In recent years, she said, the city has served as a funding administrator – a role she expects to continue, even as federal funding tied to the pandemic dries up.

“We're finding ourselves in the center of this challenge more than we ever have been,” Davis said. “We have to address the safety and well-being of all in our community. Homelessness is a national challenge.”

Mayor Andrea Davis.(Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Mayor Andrea Davis. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Since taking office, Davis has convened a local working group, which has spent the past few months exploring solutions to homelessness and urban camping. The panel includes business members, neighborhood representatives and social services, among others.

Davis expects the group to offer recommendations this spring for the City Council to consider.

“Ideas for accountability, resources and new pathways are underway,” said Davis. “Local government cannot do this alone. It takes all of us to lean in and try different things with the goal of getting people reconnected to social connections, a roof over their head, food, dignity and a purpose.”


Homelessness isn't the city's only challenge, and housing costs and a shortage of housing inventory have lingered as an issue now for several years.

To address the problem, the city is working on a number of fronts. Among them, it's now half-way through a years-long effort to rewrite its building and zoning codes in a push to streamline housing development.

It's also working to shorten the development timeline and implement changes adopted by the Legislature. Davis said new legislation now allows the city to apply tax increment financing to aid in the vertical construction of workforce housing.

The Ravara project on city land off Scott Street has emerged as a premier example, Davis said.

“If not for local government's willingness to step in and our ability to combine and use resources, that would continue to be an industrial wasteland today,” she said. “But it's not. It's ready to be used for residences and homes. We just broke ground with the infrastructure that's necessary to start construction.”

The Scott Street project includes 9 acres owned by the city. Three acres will be placed into a community land trust with 45 homes, half of which will be offered at affordable or income-restricted rates.

The remaining six acres will include several hundred market-rate apartments, a park and opportunities for commercial development and childcare.

“By being able to utilize legislative changes and being able to trigger long-standing goals to create more opportunities for more ownership and rental opportunities, we're working to ensure that people who are working, living and retiring in Missoula have a place to call home,” Davis said.

Earlier this month, the city also secured a purchase agreement for several acres near Southgate Mall. The property has been eyed for decades but lacks any infrastructure and has sat vacant as a result. Davis said it's ripe for intense mixed-use opportunities, and the city will ensure that happens.

“The city's goal here is to acquire the property and put in the public infrastructure necessary to develop it,” Davis said. “We'll be able to sell those properties to the private sector to develop homes, commercial space and to develop retail.”