The Missoula City Council wants to give a shot in the arm to businesses in need of faster and cheaper Internet speeds.
On Monday, the council voted 9-1 to spend $13,125 toward a feasibility study “outlining the demand for and options to improve access to extreme broadband at an affordable cost for businesses in Missoula.”
“We did a survey around that and identified that one of the needs that folks have is for high-speed, high-capacity connections at an affordable price,” said Councilwoman Caitlin Copple.
Copple chairs the Economic Development Subcommittee of the council, a group that formed to research the way municipal government can best support technology infrastructure to bolster local businesses – and recruit more technology startups.
“We felt like the time is now to bring on a consultant and really get a professional assessment on what we have, what the demand is and what the potential partnerships are,” Copple said.
Earlier this month, the Board of County Commissioners guaranteed $13,125 toward the study. The city and county funds together meet a matching grant requirement for a $26,250 award the Bitter Root Economic Development District secured from the Big Sky Trust Fund, a program of the Montana Department of Commerce.
“The city of Missoula recognizes affordable, high-capacity and high-speed Internet service across the city is vital to Missoula’s economic growth,” reads the city’s resolution authorizing the expenditure.
Councilman Dick Haines was the only vote against the expenditure; Councilmen Alex Taft and Mike O’Herron were absent. Haines said he believes existing companies can meet the need, although he plans to do more research.
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” Haines said. “I think we have enough private investment already in the ground.”
Copple said she hopes to have a consultant hired by the end of June and the product in hand 90 days later. In a survey of local businesses, she said, an estimated 20 said higher speeds would “make a big difference” in the work they do.
Money for the study will come out of the city’s $40,000 of remaining Title I funds, money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said city finance director Brentt Ramharter. He said the account has dollars the city periodically reloans or grants.
The funds are intended to help people afford homes, said Councilman Jason Wiener. And bigger paychecks are part of the equation.
“When we talk about housing affordability in particular, people often talk about the gap between prices and income and working to close that as well, so this is really money put to that purpose,” Wiener said.
No one offered public comment at the meeting, but the project was backed with letters of support sent to the Big Sky Trust Fund selection committee.
Dori Gilels, publisher and chief operating officer of Mamalode, said in one letter that strong broadband infrastructure will lead to jobs that pay well for Montanans. She said better access will help Mamalode thrive, too.
“We are a small but rapidly growing media company for moms that relies on the ability to easily and effectively produce, upload and transmit content and engagement tools online,” Gilels wrote. “As the use of mobile devices continues to grow, our strategy for responsive design is increasingly dependent on expansive use of wireless technology.”
In another letter, John Horner of First Interstate Bank agreed the investment in the feasibility study was “an important step” in encouraging high-quality jobs to the region.
“We support this project because growth of good, sustainable businesses is good for the economy of Missoula and for the state as a whole,” wrote Horner, vice president of commercial banking. “Good, sustainable businesses have technological needs, and this study will assist in our having a better understanding of where we stand in this ever-changing environment.”
In other business, the council also unanimously voted to spend $1.75 million of tax increment money on a project bringing 224 apartments to the Intermountain Lumber site on Russell Street.