Missoula Mayor John Engen's initiative to bring more businesses to town and create high-wage jobs has taken a significant step forward.

As of last week, Engen's Best Place Project is no longer being directed by city government - it's now in the hands of the private sector.

Three men, all top executive officers of major Missoula businesses, have agreed to guide and develop the initiative to fruition as chairpersons of the Best Place Project's 25-person board of directors.

At the helm of the city's new economic development effort: Jeff Fee, president of St. Patrick Hospital; Scott Burke, president of First Security Bank; and Dirk Visser, CEO of Allegiance Benefit Plan Management, a Missoula-based third-party administrator for health care benefit plans in Montana and several other states.

Fee described the new development as "significant."

"To be successful, this initiative has to be led by the private sector," he said. "For this to move away from being a government initiative to a private-public partnership led by the private sector is critical."

An economically vital community that has good-paying jobs, steady employment and an inviting business climate benefits everyone.

Yet strategic, thoughtful and assertive economic development doesn't happen unless that's the plan, Fee said.

For whatever reasons, opportunities have passed by Missoula, said James Grunke, a national fundraising expert and facilitator hired to help launch the Best Place Project.

"For Missoula to hit the national average in income earnings - $45,000 - it will take 28,000 new jobs paying double the current Missoula wage of $17 an hour," said Grunke, who is a project director for National Community Development Services. "To get to just the average in Billings (which is $37,000 a year compared to Missoula's $34,000) means we would need 5,500 jobs at double the wages."

The disparity clearly shows Missoula has significant room for improvement, Fee said.

"This is the situation we are in," he said. "This the situation we are trying to do something about."


Now that a leadership team has been chosen, the threesome will begin assembling the 25-person board that will guide Missoula's new generation of economic development.

Who will be on the board? The goal is to have a diverse representation of nonprofits and large, medium and small businesses - particularly small business, said Burke.

"We need small businesses on the board because that's so much of what Missoula is made of," he said.

Once the board of directors is chosen - a roster of individuals who intellectually and financially support the Best Place Project objectives - work will begin in other avenues.

Fundraising will begin in earnest, with an official capital campaign set to begin in November to raise $3.2 million, and an executive director of the project needs to be hired to guide the action items - the actual economic development goals as defined by the board of directors.

Envisioned and designed by the board members, the economic plan will identify specific areas for Missoula to grow employment, Fee said.

"After we identify what we want to bring to Missoula and what kind of jobs we want, we will target jobs that will change our place in the income-earning trend, close the gap and improve Missoula," Fee said.

In the meantime, the many Missoula entities that already are engaged in areas of economic development - such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Missoula Area Economic Development Corp. - will likely carry on with business as usual, Burke said.

Over the next few weeks, meetings will be conducted with representatives of those agencies to discuss how best to collaborate, merge, improve and reassign responsibilities to create a stronger economic development climate for Missoula.

"We don't want to duplicate our efforts or fragment our efforts," Fee said, "but we do want to improve our efforts and fill in what we are missing."

Getting all the various agencies on aboard with the same objective may be relatively painless, said Grunke, who has spent much of the spring and summer talking with the city's promotional organizations.

"They all recognize the need to move forward," he said. "Many of them said they thought it would be good if they were housed together so there was easy access to the different services."


The Best Place Project has a significant amount of momentum and will continue moving forward to bring the city's resources together for appropriate and aggressive economic development, Fee said.

Engen couldn't be happier with how the project has evolved since its community introduction last February.

"We've ended up with pretty remarkable leadership here with our three leaders," Engen said of Fee, Burke and Visser. "In this case, they are respected in the community for a variety of talents, and that's a big piece of this puzzle - having folks engaged one way or another every day in economic development by virtue of the businesses they run."

"I think a lot of people are paying attention to the Best Place Project," he said. "That's not about me - it's about the energy of the folks who accepted leadership positions and it's about the idea Missoula can grow great businesses that reflect our values and let Missoula families make a comfortable living."

Like Fee and Burke, Visser said he's ready and eager to lend a hand.

"I think Missoula has much going for it and if we are proactive about getting our story out there, a lot of good things will happen," he said. "I've been here for 35 years and I employ about 260 people.

"I want Missoula to be the best it can be and I strongly believe if we put our heads together, we'll get there."


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