Google. Facebook. Oracle.
Heads of those Fortune 500 companies descended last week on Butte for an economic summit hosted by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, head of the Senate Finance Committee. The who’s who of business leaders and innovators attracted an estimated 4,000 participants to the Montana Economic Development Summit, but the faces of some top leaders in Missoula were missing from the crowd.
Mayor John Engen didn’t attend the conference, and the business community took note of his absence and that of the Missoula County commissioners.
John Herring, owner and broker for Re/Max All Stars, said business people in Missoula are frustrated at the lack of economic progress in Missoula compared to advances in other Montana cities, and they were disappointed not to see more elected leaders, including the city’s self-proclaimed chief executive officer, in the mix.
“I think a lot of people thought it would be important for the mayor to be there for Missoula to make a bigger and splashier presence,” Herring said.
Plus, he said, the work was right up Engen’s alley: “The event was billed as a networking event, and I think one of the greatest attributes Mayor Engen has is his personality and his ability to kibitz. We can all agree on that, I think.”
Engen, though, said the city of Missoula was represented well by other leaders. The director and deputy from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency attended, as did a team from the Missoula Economic Partnership.
“So I would have been largely a face in the crowd, and frankly, I needed to catch up on some things here,” Engen said.
The mayor noted he was plagued by “email bankruptcy” after a “hyper busy” schedule the previous week. He also said the Partnership sniffed out leads in Butte, and he will help with followup by giving interested parties tours of Missoula, as he’s done in the recent past, working to bring those nascent deals to a close.
“That’s largely what we’ve been doing with Missoula is getting ourselves on the map,” Engen said. “And I’m not sure that just having the mayor, one of 4,000 people, walk up to you and say, ‘My town is best,’ is going to do much.”
Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss has attended in the past and planned to participate this year, but a medical issue kept her away, said Dale Bickell, chief administrative officer for Missoula County. However, Bickell said he spent one day at the conference, and the county’s communications and project manager sat in for both days.
“What’s important from the county’s perspective is we’re really trying to make economic development a priority of some of the things we do,” Bickell said.
Curtiss, for instance, sits on the board of the MEP and the Bitter Root Economic Development District; Bickell is on the board of MonTEC, the Montana Technology Enterprise Center. He said the Butte event was unique because it offered the opportunity to connect with people from all over Montana and learn about initiatives taking place in other cities.
“It’s important. The sense I really have had over the last few years is that Missoula for sure, and Montana as well, are starting to take economic development more seriously and starting to be more competitive,” Bickell said.
Top local politicians elsewhere in Montana opted out of the forum for other reasons. Mayor Mike Winters, of Great Falls, said he wishes the summit had been held in his city, “dead center of the state,” and his schedule didn’t allow him a trip to Butte.
“I didn’t have the time allocated for doing such, and our situation in Great Falls is a tad different than I think your mayor in Missoula,” Winters said. “Our position here is advertised as a part-time mayor with strong city manager.”
Winters didn’t discount the idea the summit could have been an opportunity to build a bridge between business and government, but he also said he doesn’t want to spend money on travel if he doesn’t have to. The city budget is healthy, he said, but it doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room for unnecessary items.
Also, Winters said, conferences can be hit or miss: “I would have really liked to have done that and visited with Baucus and all those people, but sometimes, those things get a little out of hand. I think sometimes you get an awful lot of B.S. and not a lot of substance.”
In Missoula, Councilwoman Caitlin Copple raved about the summit. She paid her own way since the city is covering a couple other trips she’s taking. Copple, chairwoman of the Missoula City Council’s subcommittee on economic development, said she attended because she wants Missoula to be able to control its own economic destiny.
“I felt like the summit was the most exciting thing that has happened, certainly since I’ve been an elected official, and I feel like it would be a huge missed opportunity for me not to be there both as a representative of the city and as a Montanan who cares about building an economy where people can afford to live here and stay here,” said Copple, who tweeted from the event and noted Councilman Mike O’Herron also attended part of it.
Copple, who is working on a broadband project in Missoula, said the summit helped highlight the need for “extreme broadband” in the state as a whole. She was thrilled to ask Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, the first question from the summit, and she shared his advice.
“He called on Montana to light all the dark fiber we have, which is a lot, and said government needs to invest in tech infrastructure,” Copple said.
Jeff Krauss found the conference valuable because he wants to bring innovators to the city of Bozeman. Krauss, who serves as deputy mayor of Bozeman and will again serve as mayor starting in January, said he wasn’t on any panels at the summit, but he had a job there nonetheless.
“It’s hunting season in Montana,” Krauss said. “It’s hunting season, and I was stalking the wily entrepreneur.”
If people can’t make a living in a city, it doesn’t matter how great its rivers and streams are, he said. Krauss said people can’t stay if they’re broke or can’t pay their employees, so at the conference he pitched Bozeman’s quality of life to people who can bring the city jobs.
“In Bozeman, we’re all about attracting innovators who could have their business anywhere in the world and can choose anywhere, and we think we can make a good pitch for them to choose Bozeman,” said Krauss, also on the Board of Regents.
He said Baucus brings incredible people to the summit, and Krauss sat close to the front so the senator could see he was there and paying attention. When representatives from companies such as NorthWestern Energy, ConocoPhillips and other business and industry people from across Montana are there, Krauss said he must be present as well.
“I think whatever they’re learning, I want to learn. Whatever they’re seeing, I want to see,” Krauss said. “I want them to know we’re as serious about it as they are.”
Herring, of Re/Max All Stars, said he knows Missoula’s elected leaders are working hard, and he appreciates some of the progress the city has made, such as bringing the aluminum trailer manufacturer, ALCOM, to the old Stimson mill site in Bonner.
At the same time, he said, Missoula is lagging behind, and the business community here is feeling frustration and “a little bit of jealousy, too,” at the gains other cities are making. At the conference, Oracle announced it was growing its operation in Bozeman, and Boeing made note of a $35 million expansion in Helena.
“I’m not faulting those that are elected. I appreciate their time. I think we all do, and I think we appreciate how tough it is,” Herring said. “But boy ... Why is MSU growing by leaps and bounds and UM is going backwards? Why do you read in the Missoulian that Helena is getting this, Butte is getting that, Bozeman is getting this? ... Where is the cut of the pie for Missoula?
“We get promised that maybe we might get a few more larger jets flying in here.”