Rather than protest a harsh review lobbed their way last week, Missoula agencies called out in a new economic development assessment welcomed the feedback.

In fact, the entire report – and all the warts it reveals about Missoula’s lack of a unified economic development strategy – is one of the most positive things that’s happened to this community in a long time, said Dick King, director of the Missoula Area Economic Development Corp.

“If it takes consultants from out of state to get things going, it doesn’t matter,” King said. “They point out we don’t have a strategic plan for our community and that’s exactly what we have said.

“We’ve tried to do that – develop a plan – at various times, but no one has been interested. I guess there just wasn’t a sense of urgency.”

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The report was commissioned by Missoula Mayor John Engen for his Best Place Project and conducted by two economic development experts from Atlanta, Jay Garner and Tom DiFiore.

After interviewing 85 community leaders and business representatives, and after an intensive review and tour of the community, the consultants concluded that Missoula’s economic development efforts are woefully deficient and ineffective, and lack direction and leadership.

“I don’t think anyone was surprised by the results of the report,” said Barb Neilan, director of the city-funded Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We all know Missoula has been seriously falling behind similar-sized cities within the state and the states surrounding us.

“Across the board with leadership in Missoula, everybody has been having the same sense that we need some kind of unity and we just haven’t seen it.”

DiFiore learned that Missoula’s many tourism and economic development organizations are sometimes in conflict with one another and have a tendency to protect their turf instead of working together.

Missoula’s weakest link, however, is the Missoula Area Economic Development Corp.

“In our work on this project and subsequent visits and follow-ups, it became evident early on that an effective economic development service-delivery mechanism was missing in Missoula,” Garner said of MAEDC.

 “A well-managed, professionally staffed economic development organization is imperative to achieve economic development success,” he said. “We noted deficiencies in a number of key tools for a community to promote itself effectively.”

Specifically, MAEDC – Missoula’s chief facilitator for economic development – does not have an effective website that provides valuable community information for potential investors.

When the consultants, acting as potential investors, asked MAEDC about Missoula, they were provided with incorrect information and sometimes no information.

During a “windshield tour” of town, the consultants had even more negative experiences with MAEDC.

As noted in their report, Garner described a “lack of basic client management etiquette such as an itinerary provided before the tour; the review and use of a map of the area to understand the product; a clean vehicle used to host and tour a client; the return of phone calls or reply of e-mails by certain management staff.”

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King acknowledged the consultants’ pointed criticism wasn’t off base, but said it was fraught with misunderstanding.

MAEDC does fall short in recruiting businesses, because that’s not a priority.

“We do not operate a business recruitment program. We do not have the resources to implement a true business recruitment program like you see in other places,” King said. “But we do respond to good leads that would be good for the community.

“The best example is DirecTV, which we successfully brought to Missoula.”

With limited staffing and resources, MAEDC dedicates its energies to working with businesses that would be a good fit for the many vacant industrial sites, such as the Bonner millsite, and helping to grow Missoula businesses by providing loans and emergency bridge funding.

King has also been long frustrated by his organization’s inferior website, and the consultant’s criticism is well taken.

“We have wanted to improve it for a long time and we have long understood Missoula needs a good portal to our community,” he said. “We are interested in pooling resources with other organizations to do better, to come together and use our expertise to create a first-class website.”

As for the now-notorious tour, he said MAEDC misunderstood what the whole thing was about.

“The tour was set up by the mayor’s office and we didn’t realize we were doing it for the consultants,” King said. “We do have itineraries and we do create specific agendas for specific companies we work with.”

“Our mistake was we weren’t sure what Jay Garner wanted to see, so we chose to take the time to get to know him, find out what he wanted and to show him around,” he said. “We could have handled that better.”

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Whatever MAEDC’s faults, weaknesses or strengths, they’re not King’s burden alone, Garner said. MAEDC – along with King – is governed by a board of directors, and the various agencies, including the city, that fund it must hold it accountable.

Having a clear, agreed-upon economic development plan is critical for a community’s well-being, he said. So, too, is having a system that holds every arm of economic development accountable.

To that end, the consultants recommended that Missoula rebuild its system and create a new economic development organization that is funded by a public-private partnership.

This new entity would house and oversee the MAEDC and the CVB, both of which would be reorganized, and its mission would be dedicated to business recruitment, expansion of existing businesses and tourism promotion.

“By having all the economic development functions under one roof, the city is able to avail itself of a unified brand and marketing economies with the budget,” Garner explained.

To be worthwhile and effective, the consultants concluded this new effort would take about $3.2 million over five years, funded by private and public dollars.

*****

Although the report and its recommendations have just been released, and many in the community are still wading through the pages and coming to terms with historic changes it suggests, the information is creating a lot of excitement.

“It would be great to have one direction in which we are all following and which we each know what our part is in that,” Neilan said. “I think this is a way to draw us together and that is extremely important because we have been too fractured.”

“I think Missoula is ready for it,” she said. “The business community, people in the public and private sector all see at this point that we are falling behind in our economic development and we aren’t doing as much as other cities.

“People see the potential Missoula has and see that we aren’t reaching it. And we are all asking why – how can we do better?”

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