Will Johnson, the newest chair of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, wants to use his yearlong term to raise awareness about how local spending is so important to a community’s economy.
“I want to spell out the connectivity of things that go on, that are missed in the community,” he said. “Folks complain about property taxes and turn around and buy from Amazon. There’s a disconnect there that needs to be shown and demonstrated.”
Johnson noted that Amazon doesn't pay Missoula County property taxes, sponsor a local Little League baseball team or contribute to any local nonprofits. But locally owned shops, grocery stores, sporting goods retailers and other businesses contribute tens of thousands of dollars to Missoula causes every year, he said.
“Local businesses show up and sponsor events and youth activities,” he said. “Three of our larger members contribute over a million dollars.”
Spending at locally owned stores keeps dollars in the community and supports jobs here. Those workers pay for housing, food, clothing and other goods in the Missoula economy. Johnson isn’t even against shopping at big box stores in Missoula, because at least those businesses pay local property taxes.
“I only buy specialty items that I can’t find here, and even then I feel a little guilty,” he said.
A study by Michigan State University found that on average, every $100 spent at a locally owned business means $73 stays in the local economy, while only $43 of every $100 spent at a non-local business stays in the immediate economy.
Johnson said he and the chamber staff and board will be focusing on workforce issues in the community as well. With an extremely low unemployment rate of 2.8 percent, businesses are having a hard time finding qualified workers who want to stay on board for a long time.
“We’re looking at a child care initiative,” he said. “We have great child care facilities in town, but not enough. We need to get more workers plugged in to quality day care opportunities to get more folks into the workforce. Some people are spending half their paycheck on day care and that’s a tough position to be in.”
Johnson said opioid addiction is a problem that many companies are struggling with, and Missoula’s housing crisis is a huge issue. Wages haven’t kept up with home prices over the last decade, so people are being forced to live in the Bitterroot or surrounding communities and commute to work.
Johnson has been in Missoula 10 years after growing up in Oregon and living in Bozeman. He now heads Will Johnson & Associates Farm Bureau Financial Services in Missoula, which specializes in insurance and financial advising.
“It’s a tough industry to crack into,” he explained. “So one of my first stops was at the chamber. I got plugged into a networking group called Leadership Missoula. It was dynamite.”
Leadership Missoula allows citizens to get an education from police officers, educators, homeless outreach experts, artists and other experts about the community.
“It was great for getting me plugged in to the community,” he said.
He’s now been on the chamber board for five years. He said the chamber is now working on advocating positions on things that will be on the November ballot, including the open space bond and maintenance levy as well as a ballot initiative, I-185, that would raise tobacco taxes in order to fund health care costs.
“We’re the largest voice of business in western Montana and we need to be more vocal about things that affect business,” he said.
Some of the issues won’t be easy to take sides on, he noted.
“We’re really wrestling with the open space bond,” he said. “We know that beautiful natural resources attract companies, and the key to retaining great employees is access to recreation. But we need to balance that with the attainable housing issue and how more lands taken out of the inventory will have some sort of effect.
"So we’re dealing with how those two wrestle with each other," he continued. "We can’t ignore what a great job we’ve done in the past but what is the trade-off going forward?”
For more information, visit www.missoulachamber.com.