When the Missoula Economic Partnership was created and funded, Missoula was in a very different place than what currently exists. Economic development is the strategy that shapes economic growth, and takes a long-range view. Economic growth is what is necessary for our community to evolve and prosper. Job creation, capital investment, commercial and residential development all contribute to economic growth, which hopefully translate into increased wages and per capita income and in-migration of new residents, which will continue to push economic growth.
While I think most of us looking at the year ahead are optimistic, there clearly is much more work to be done. Missoula was very late in exiting the recession, and wage growth continues to lag behind other areas of the state. MEP was created and operates based on some basic questions:
Where are we now? In 2010-2011 we clearly knew where we were; we were in the midst of a global economic collapse and had just witnessed two significant mill closures. There is nothing like an economic crisis to be a call to action. Thankfully, those days are past, but this question is always relevant. Our construction industry vanished and that workforce has yet to return, we continue to be sluggish in wage growth even though thousands of new jobs have been created in Missoula since 2011.
Where do we want to be? Our first goal was to have per capita wages in Missoula meet or exceed the leading community in Montana. That is how we originally set the bar at the creation of jobs paying an average wage of $37,000 per year, which would drive up per capita income in Missoula County. While we have seen wage growth, there is still ample room for improvement.
How do we get there? It always takes four components – at a minimum – to drive economic growth, the expansion of existing businesses, new ventures started, and new companies attracted to the area. The wildcard is workforce development; does the workforce exist for the other three activities to take place?
How will we know it when we are there? Clearly articulated goals that can be measured help us understand where we are and what continues to need to be done to be successful. However, because the landscape is always changing, so too the goals must also continue to change. While Missoula grows, the rest of the state and nation also grows. Do we have the pieces in place that enable us to succeed? Is the economy diverse? Is economic growth sustainable?
All of us who live here recognize that Missoula should be the shining star of Montana. Missoula has such advantages – the home of University of Montana, exceptional arts and culture amenities, quality of life, the people who live here. It is our responsibility, all of us, to help shape and answer these questions.