The city of Missoula’s perceived lack of economic identity has left some in the business sector looking for changes, and they’re calling on local leaders to define Missoula’s vision for the 21st century.

Two years after the Montana Policy Institute ranked Missoula near the bottom of cities across the state for its business friendliness – and years after local lumber mills ceased operations – a sense of economic stagnation lingers, leaving some to ask when Missoula will reinvent itself, and what shape that reinvention might take.

The debate could be described as a tale of two perspectives. Some believe Missoula is making headway in laying the groundwork for a diverse economic future. Others feel it lacks a unified vision of where it needs to go and what it wants to become.

“The world is getting more competitive and Missoula doesn’t have much time to remain on its laurels,” said Alex Philp, founder and president of the geoanalytics firm GCS. “If we don’t have a shared vision, there’s no way the world will know what we stand for, and in today’s economy we won’t be able to attract, recruit and build around a common vision.”

Philp directed his concerns in part toward city and county officials, the Missoula Economic Partnership and the University of Montana. The school was slow to react to new trends, he said, and entire technologies came and went before “words were placed into action.”

But Philp believes UM has responded more quickly over the past year by rallying around the goal of building a university for the “global century.” The school has launched several new programs and has formed partnerships with local and national businesses.

Philp, an MEP investor who supports the partnership’s overall mission, doesn’t see the same unity and vision in Missoula. The growth of his own business – and that of others, he believes – depends in part on a clear definition of what the city wants to become.

“I feel a sense of urgency and, to some degree, like I’m fighting this uphill battle,” said Philp. “We need a community-shared vision appropriate for the 21st century. The leadership is failing us by not uniting us around a common focus.”

Philp isn’t alone in his concerns. Dick King, former director of the defunct Missoula Area Economic Development Corp., and downtown property owner Charlie Stevenson, joined several others in launching Western Montana Community Partners, hoping to spark conversation directed at defining Missoula’s post-recession identity.

Formed late last year, the nonprofit looks to advocate for responsible economic growth by uniting the business sector. They say the time has come for community leaders to confront Missoula’s perceived lack of economic vitality and vision.

“The economic growth in western Montana is lagging,” said Stevenson. “I think that if someone doesn’t step up and talk about it, it’s never going to get talked about. We need to have a better thought process from our leaders.”

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The Missoula Economic Partnership painted a different picture of the local economy during its monthly investors’ meeting last week. Missoula is firmly seated on the nation’s radar for its density of high-tech startups, MEP believes, and deals are in the works to land new technology and manufacturing firms.

James Grunke, executive director of MEP, is calling 2014 the year of the startup in Missoula. The number of local ventures has reached critical mass, he said, noting the city’s national recognition in the The Atlantic and a recent report by the Kaufman Foundation.

“That national (recognition) just shows the interest in the level of startups we have in this community,” Grunke said. “It spurned calls from other venture funds across the county to our office. We recognize the role and value of startups in our community.”

Grunke said the recognition makes a difference when working to attract other businesses to town. Other efforts on the home front, including the opening of Blackstone LaunchPad at UM and the growth of MonTECH, shouldn’t be overlooked, he said.

“The MonTECH incubator is full and we’re looking at other places in the community to expand MonTECH and its footprint,” Grunke said. “Blackfoot Telecommunications upgraded MonTECH’s Internet services to 1 GB per second. That’s a game-changing difference for these startup businesses.”

Brigitta Miranda-Freer, director of business development for MEP, also sees progress on the economic front. Since November, she said, MEP has facilitated or participated in 271 meetings supporting 129 businesses.

The partnership’s direct work with 13 local companies, including those in manufacturing, technology and distribution, could create 158 jobs and bring additional capital investment to the city later this year, she said.

“In this quarter, we engaged 11 different companies looking to expand or relocate into our market,” she said. “The potential job growth represented by the inquiries represents 487 jobs. We work very hard selling Missoula to companies and site selectors that are considering our city.”

While it generally takes 18 months to close a deal, Miranda-Freer said MEP is cautiously optimistic that one new manufacturing company and four new technology firms will open in Missoula this year. Existing technology companies, she added, are helping define Missoula’s future.

“They’re growing and adding jobs here,” she said. “Their success is vital in the process of attracting more tech companies to Missoula.”

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Jean Curtiss, a Missoula County commissioner and member of the Bitter Root Economic Development District, sees the region’s diverse economy as a benefit, not a detractor. She believes Missoula is setting the groundwork for a 21st century economy by nurturing entrepreneurs and helping existing businesses expand.

Curtiss was quick to name the success stories, including Hunting GPS and ALCOM, which opened a trailer manufacturing facility in Bonner last year. Nutritional Laboratories is expanding its facility to add another shift, she said, and Mamalode is looking to grow the reach of its business.

“We’re helping Neptune Aviation with a feasibility study to see if it makes sense for them to go forward with a business plan to fly people from the west side of the state to the Bakken (oil patch),” said Curtiss. “There’s a lot going on under the surface that people don’t see every day.”

But if there’s an elephant in the room, it remains the loss of the region’s large employers and high-paying jobs, including those at Smurfit Stone Container Corp. and the Stimson Lumber Co. sawmill and plywood plant. When Macy’s closed, it left downtown Missoula without an anchor tenant and its building, the Missoula Mercantile, has been vacant for four years.

While few large employers have been lured to the city in recent years, Curtiss said, jobs have been added in doses over time. When taken together, she said, they begin to add up.

“It’s just a little different now,” Curtiss said. “A lot of what was going on in Missoula was real speculation – a false economy that in some ways wasn’t sustainable. We’re probably being a little more realistic now.”

Curtiss said BREDD and MEP receive calls daily from those interested in doing business in Missoula. Site speculators are attracted to the city for its quality of life and its appeal as a vibrant and progressive university town.

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There’s no disagreement over Missoula’s quality of life – it’s something all agree on. But those who are frustrated over the city’s perceived stagnation and lack of economic vision say talk is cheap, and they’re looking for results.

“I’m attracted to the place and our physical beauty, but I don’t understand why the aesthetic can’t go along with a common shared vision of where we’re going,” Philp said. “I don’t understand why we can’t come up with a vision appropriate for the 21st century. We spend more time looking in the rearview mirror than we do looking forward.”

Those looking to gauge the Missoula Economic Partnership’s progress and vision may get their first true indicator later this year. Grunke said the partnership, which claims more than 110 investors – and recently added five new investors to the list – will create its first benchmark report this summer.

“We take that very seriously and it’s always been in our plan,” Grunke said. “We’ve looked at a couple of models for that benchmark report, and we’ll meet with our consultant in April.”

Grunke expects the report to be released around July. In the meantime, Philp believes local leaders should call a town summit and begin defining the city’s economic vision – something others can rally around.

“We need to get the bloody carcass on the table, get the facts on the table,” he said. “We’ve got to get in a room and have a town summit with the collective leadership. If we don’t find the common denominator, the common ground, we’ll continue to be more reactive in our approach to our future than we are proactive.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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