The Missoula Economic Partnership will be opening an “entrepreneur center” at MonTEC where people who want to start businesses can come together, talk with each other, and learn from experts.

That was one update James Grunke offered Monday to Missoula City Council members who wanted to hear the latest on the initiative to grow the local economy. Councilwoman Caitlin Copple, who requested the report, said the city is the largest investor in the project to date, and she wanted councilors to have an opportunity to hear its progress and ask questions.

Grunke, a consultant with National Community Development Services, helped launch the Missoula Economic Partnership, and he’s directing it while the organization hires a replacement for its first president, who left after six months on the job. While he knows the endeavor has taken longer than expected, Grunke said he agreed to the interim post only because the board wanted someone to start getting work done – not just warm a seat.

“We are positioned, I think, for success,” said Grunke, who said ideally, the new chief executive officer will be working in Missoula within four to five weeks.

He offered his updates Monday an hour before the regular Missoula City Council meeting, and he also took some council questions.

The “entrepreneur center” will be in a MonTEC conference room where people who want to start businesses can go, post questions on a white board for their peers to answer, or just hang out. Different experts, such as intellectual property lawyers and marketing professionals, will come talk with them.

Grunke said the MEP will create the same center online. In fact, he said one problem businesses have is obtaining equity, and an online service will function almost like a “dating service” that matches startups needing capital with angel investors. The first screening of companies looking for opportunities takes place next week, and Grunke is optimistic about the program.

“It’s something I think we’re all going to look to with great pride,” he said.

The Missoula Economic Partnership won’t back just any project, though. Councilman Adam Hertz asked if it considered supporting the Bitterroot Resort, but the MEP’s Brigitta Freer said that plan wasn’t a fit. MEP representatives met with Tom Maclay about the resort, which is in foreclosure, but the project doesn’t match the group’s targets, in particular the goal for raising salaries.

In other business, during the council meeting, the Montana Association of Planners awarded architect Don MacArthur of MMW for “distinguished leadership by a community partner.” (See related story on Page A1.)

The council also unanimously – and enthusiastically – approved a “conditional use” to allow a micro-distillery to operate at 129 W. Front St. The Montgomery Distillery is slated to open sometime in May. When Copple seconded the motion to approve, Mayor John Engen said a second wasn’t needed. To laughter, though, he joked that he’d come to expect just that kind of enthusiasm from her, especially when it came to distilled products: “I’m a little surprised Mr. (Councilman Jon) Wilkins didn’t offer a third.”

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