Layering an investment fund geared toward social outcomes with a new federal tax tool could bring an array of needed projects to Missoula's opportunity zone, the Missoula Economic Partnership said this week.

While MEP works to gather community feedback at home on what type of projects would be valued in the West Broadway corridor, it also has taken to the road in recent months to explore how other communities are putting their opportunity zones to work.

Opportunity zones were created in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to encourage long-term private investment in low-income census tracts. But while in Salt Lake City, MEP learned of a second investment tool that could be layered upon the opportunity zone to meet additional community needs.

Grant Kier, president and CEO of MEP, said the effort - rooted in social outcomes - is gaining traction.

“Our whole goal for this was to elevate the profile of really cool projects that would serve a community need in Missoula to a level that has sufficient partners and sufficient community outreach, so that a big impact investor might take an interest in Missoula when they otherwise might not have had Montana on the radar,” Kier said.

After the Trump administration created the act in 2017, Gov. Steve Bullock nominated 25 areas in Montana as opportunity zones, including much of Missoula’s West Broadway corridor. Loosely defined, it covers a swath of the city from Scott Street to North Reserve, and from Interstate 90 south to the Clark Fork River.

To date, the opportunity zone has landed a number of investments resulting in several new office buildings and a medical clinic. But MEP is looking to take future projects a step further, and it's now exploring ways to bring additional investment to the city in projects that offer social benefits.

“To make investment work takes so many layers of different kinds of money to come to the table,” Kier said. “This tiny additional incentive in the opportunity zone can sometimes be the tipping point to make something a little more financially viable than it would be without the opportunity zone.”

Attracting an impact investor is only part of the equation and MEP has begun holding community forums to gather feedback and support ahead of any potential project. The partnership held its first forum in January with residents in the North and West side neighborhoods.

Ideas gleaned from the session and others to come could help the process forward, said Julie Lacey, the economic development director at MEP.

“As part of our plan, we wanted to meet with the community and hear from them what types of development are needed, specifically on the North and West side,” said Lacey. “We got really good feedback over what types of businesses they'd like to see and what types of infrastructure they'd like to see.”

In some communities, impact investments have created everything from private schools to solar arrays. In Missoula, housing and commercial development could emerge as a target for such funds, though winning support will be vital to the outcome.

“The community outreach we're investing a lot of time in right now is really valuable to the investor,” said Kier. “The last thing they want is a challenging investment that doesn't support community outcomes and doesn't have the full support of the community.”

While in Salt Lake City recently, Kier said MEP made contact with several potential investors who showed interest in Missoula. They asked MEP to stay in touch once the local process moves further along.

“This time spent on the front end to really understand what the needs are really gives them confidence of delivering a product that gets customers, and also that there won't be people standing in opposition to the outcome,” Kier said.