2015 was a year of bustling economic activity in the Garden City, with huge development projects taking shape in all parts of town.
“There was pretty good growth in both manufacturing and construction,” said Patrick Barkey, an economist and director of the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. “Construction measured by employment is doing reasonably well. Everybody sees the construction projects at the university and there has been a lot of multi-family housing, but not a ton of single-family homes.”
In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, growth in Missoula's construction industry as measured by inflation-adjusted wages was 8.4 percent compared to an overall growth rate of the entire economy of 3.1 percent.
The housing industry has been doing well for the past decade, especially in western Montana.
Missoula had 30,288 homes as of 2013, and 13.4 percent of those were built since 2003, according to Headwaters Economics. Statewide, more than 44,000 homes were built in that same time. That outpaces any 10-year period in the state's history.
The 18 western Montana counties account for 75 percent of the homes built statewide since 1990, a total of 77,000 new homes.
It wasn't just housing that is driving growth in the construction industry in Missoula. All over the city, new developments provided construction jobs and will continue to boost economic development and sustain other jobs in the year ahead.
The $24.5 million development of the South Crossing shopping center, which now houses Cabela’s, Kohl’s department store, numerous new restaurants, Boot Barn and a Petco store, has added a much-needed shot of vibrancy to an area that long featured a decaying parking lot and an empty K-Mart building.
Further northeast on Brooks Street, the Holiday Village Shopping Center is undergoing a massive overhaul, with a new CVS pharmacy building and a $1.5 million, 30,000-square-foot Fuel Fitness gym expected to be completed early next year.
At the site of the Old Sawmill District between California Street and the railroad bridge over the Clark Fork River, developers are in the initial stages of building what will eventually be $250 million in new development to be completed by 2020.
So far, construction has begun on two high-end condominiums. A new brewpub and restaurant, an affordable housing complex, a giant student housing project, retail space, offices and a gym are also planned to start construction next year.
Then there’s the $29 million, six-story, 55,000-square-foot Stockman Bank building that is expected to be completed at the corner of Orange and Broadway in downtown Missoula by the summer of 2017. The bank plans on building other locations in town as well, including a site on Brooks Street.
A new $32 million, 100,000-square-foot, four-story Missoula College building on East Broadway is well underway, and that is expected to spur development in that area.
The University of Montana is in the process of construction for the $9.3 million Gilkey Center for Executive Education, which will host guest lectures by corporate executives and small business owners. A $2.5 million student athletic academic center, paid for by private funding, was completed by UM earlier this fall.
Consumer Direct, a home-health management company, held a groundbreaking in September for its new $23 million, four-story, 73,000-square-foot headquarters on North Reserve Street.
Bretz RV and Marine recently completed a massive new 40,000-square-foot addition nearby, and a long-awaited Chipotle restaurant opened its doors on North Reserve.
"Missoula is bustling," said Jim Green, the president of Univision Computers, which recently broke ground on a new 10,000-square-foot headquarters on Stockyard Road.
Two huge Safeway grocery stores in town were taken over by local owners and turned into Fresh Markets, and Missoula Brewing Company opened a new 17,000-square-foot pizza kitchen and taphouse just off North Reserve.
Southgate Mall has plans for a $21.7 million movie theater and lifestyle retail center, and its owners have invested millions in buying up surrounding properties in advance of a redesign that will focus the mall outward and make it feel more neighborhood-friendly. A 22,000-square-foot H&M clothing store opened in the mall this past summer.
There were also many new housing and hotel projects completed this year. For example, the new 60-unit Midtown Apartments on Third Street near the Good Food Store began leasing energy-efficient units this summer, and construction of two extended-stay hotels on North Reserve added a boost to the building industry in town.
“Construction has picked up and retail has strengthened,” Barkey said of Missoula’s economy.
Missoula County’s unemployment rate was 3 percent in September, which is .7 percentage points lower than a year ago and is much lower than the statewide average of 4.1 percent.
Barkey said this has wide implications for companies that are trying to find skilled workers.
“A story I’ve heard for at least 10 years, for production-oriented occupations like wood products and construction - skilled trades - employers say the perception is that these jobs are going away,” he explained. “But employers are saying, ‘Hey, it’s not all STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs. There are actually people retiring in welding, and employers need people that know how to work in sheet metal. These jobs pay well and we can’t find anybody to fill them.
"I can’t say I’m in contact with every manufacturer in Missoula. But they fill my ear with that. High-tech firms are having trouble staffing. They might not hire all from Missoula, but they certainly recruit here. The labor force is a big challenge.”