052310 jeff fee

Jeff Fee is chairman of the Missoula Economic Partnership board.

LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian

So what happens now that two economic development experts have handed Missoula a frank and unflattering assessment of its many challenges, beginning with the city’s lack of an economic development strategy?

“The hard work begins,” said Jeff Fee, president of St. Patrick Hospital. “We need to get the right players at the table – the No. 1 employers – and we need to have other people step up and involve themselves in the process of making Missoula more prosperous and economically healthy.”

St. Patrick Hospital is not only one of the city’s top employers, but also the chief financial backer of Missoula Mayor John Engen’s economic development initiative, called the Best Place Project, which hired Atlanta-based economic consultants Jay Garner and Tom DiFiore.

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The consultants spent several weeks gathering data about Missoula, researching the city as if they wanted to open a business here, and interviewing managers and business owners associated with the city’s top 100 employers.

Earlier this month, the consultants presented their findings and concluded: Missoula is woefully lacking when it comes to economic development. In fact, the city has no economic strategy or system in place, and the few agencies dedicated to this mission should be reorganized and brought under the umbrella of an entirely new economic development agency that has a clear plan, mission and active leadership, Garner told Missoula’s political and community leaders.

Given the grim assessment, St. Patrick Hospital has committed to being at the proverbial table and to help move the initiative forward, no matter how big the challenges or how long it takes, Fee said.

“We feel a sincere and deep responsibility as a partner in this and as part of the fabric of this community, and given our role in the community as a health and wellness provider, we should be taking a role in this,” Fee said. “It’s also good business to do so. Every business owner in town knows that the more people that come in and are around, the better we do economically for our businesses and personally.

“There’s a solid business reason why we and why other business leaders in this community will be and should be stepping up to the plate to help out on this front. We will get a good return on our investment in the long term.”

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Although St. Patrick Hospital has funded the majority of the work so far – some $65,000 to help pay for the consulting work – other business entities have significantly contributed to the mayor’s Best Place Project, including the mayor’s office, the University of Montana, NorthWestern Energy, First Security Bank, the Washington Companies and Missoula Redevelopment Agency.

Representatives from all the contributing entities will be part of the leadership team that tackles the many difficult challenges ahead, Engen said. He hopes other business leaders agree to join the work and help shape the future.

The first duties? Figuring out the organizational piece and raising the $3.2 million that consultants said it will take to create a new and effective economic development agency.

“As far as our timeline, we are looking as soon as possible, but I also want to do it right and I don’t know how those work together,” Engen said. “We want to go as fast as we can, but ensure we are taking all the right and necessary steps.”

The energy and vision for the initiative comes from Engen’s assembled leadership board, which includes Fee, Jim Foley, Whitney Williams, Larry Simkins, Scott Burke, Ellen Buchanan and Bob Rowe.

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One of their first tasks will be creating a larger board to consider the consultants’ recommendations and to help make the new economic vision a reality.

“We are still figuring out the ideal size of the board that will be making decisions, and we want to have enough people so that we are inclusive, but we have to figure out the right number of people who will steer the project and have time to do it,” Engen said.

Whomever makes up the board will get guidance from Tom DiFiore, Engen said, because DiFiore has spent most of his career improving economic development in communities such as Missoula.

Fee can testify to DiFiore’s good work in raising economic development funds within a community. He watched the consultant in action and witnessed the results when he was a hospital administrator in Nashville, Tenn.

“His outfit does excellent, reliable work because if they don’t think a community can get the job done, they’ll say so,” Fee said.

Given the closure of Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., Stimson Lumber Co., Macy’s and countless small Missoula businesses, Engen and his team feel a great sense of urgency to get a plan in play.

For Engen, it’s a call to action.

For Fee, Missoula has gotten its wake-up call. Now the city can roll up its sleeves and consciously, strategically guide its future. Or it can flounder, missing out on opportunities and living day to day – like a young adult who refuses to grow up.

“Missoula, as a community, is on a bridge right now – one where we can’t turn around and go back,” Fee said. “Behind us is the logging industry. Ahead of us? We haven’t yet decided what as a community we want to look like or be in five, 10 or 20 years.

“No one wants to become the next Denver of the Rockies, and no one wants more Reserve Street traffic in other places in town,” he said. “But we need to know what we want. We can’t take any-which-way road. And we need to consciously choose our path and to have whatever we decide reflects the values of the community.”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at  bcohen@missoulian.com.

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