Several businesses based in Missoula County, including a new downtown Mexican restaurant and agave bar, received a financial boost through state grant and loan funds in order to expand their output and hire more local employees.
During a meeting with the Missoula Board of County Commissioners on Wednesday, three companies, which consisted of the upcoming restaurant, a pedicab manufacturer and a software start-up, requested funding. All three received a green light from commissioners.
The commissioners gave their approval for a loan application of nearly $160,000 for a Mexican restaurant slated to open this October in the historic Missoula Mercantile building recently converted to a Marriott hotel. The Camino will offer traditional dishes inspired by recipes from Oaxaca to Yucatan, prepared with locally-sourced food, along with an agave bar.
The loan application, prepared with the help of local financer MoFi, requests support from Missoula County’s Community Development Block Grant Economic Development Revolving Loan Fund. Drawing from a pool of $700,000, projects must demonstrate a benefit for low- and moderate-income residents of Missoula in order to qualify.
As part of the agreement, the restaurant will employ eight full-time positions and pay back the loan over a period of 10 years. According to restaurant co-owner Tad Hilton, a concession with building owner Mercantile Enterprises allows them to operate without needing to purchase a liquor license. The $800,000 saved will allow them to rapidly pay off the loan.
Melissa Gordon, the grants program manager for the county, said MoFi has absolute confidence in the restaurant. According to Gordon, similar loans submitted through MoFi have had a default rate of only 1%.
Commissioner Nicole Rowley said funds like the revolving loan fund exist specifically because they are high risk, but still give businesses the “leg up they need to launch and get off the ground and create jobs.” She cited similar loans give to Pyramid Mountain Lumber, Free Cycles and Western Cider.
“Plus, it’s Mexican. Of course I’m going to vote for it,” Rowley said. Her two counterparts, Commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Josh Slotnick, agreed.
Nicole Rush, the business initiatives director of the Missoula Economic Partnership, introduced Coaster Pedicab Manufacturing for commissioners to consider for a Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund grant.
The grant, funded by Montana’s coal severance tax, partially reimburses companies that bring in out-of-state customers and provide high-paying jobs for residents. Employers must pay at least 170% of the state minimum wage in order to qualify.
Coaster Pedicab, with its facility based in Bonner, designs and manufactures custom-made bikes used for passengers, shipping and vending. During its five years of operation, the facility has expanded from an initial 2,000 square feet to a total of 24,500. They currently have 16 employees, and their clients include Starbucks, Wendy’s and the U.S. Coast Guard. The company has also been hired to build bikes for the University of Montana and the Missoula Public Library.
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Coaster Pedicab COO Justin Bruce said he will add 39 employees by the end of 2021, with the help of the grant. The new positions include engineers, project managers, bike assemblers and administrative workers.
Because grant funding can go toward nearly any expenditure, be it increasing employees or purchasing new equipment, Bruce also showed commissioners concept art for a new, electrically assisted bike currently in development.
“This is one of the main reasons why we’re coming to you,” said Bruce. “We’re going to be launching one of the first electric-powered pedal bikes that will be fully enclosed.”
According to Bruce, the enclosure on the bike will benefit both passengers and cargo by blocking out the rain and the snow. Bruce said Coaster Pedicab hopes to have a prototype completed by the end of the year.
“Right now, the delivery companies using our bikes don’t like that their drivers are getting soaked,” he said.
Before granting approval, Commissioner Slotnick asked Bruce about his plans to provide healthcare for his employees. Although benefits at Coaster Pedicab include paid time off and a 401K plan, Bruce said healthcare is a top priority for his company. The lack of health benefits, he said, has made it difficult to fill some key positions in the past. He said he intends to offer healthcare for his employees by next year.
“I will remember, when you come back next year, that you said you were going to have health insurance in 12 months,” said Slotnick before he, Strohmaier and Rowley gave their approval.
Commissioners approved a second grant for TOMIS, a marketing platform headed by Evan Tipton, a UM graduate. The corporation currently employs 16 people, half of whom also graduated from UM.
TOMIS, founded in 2016, provides online marketing help for tour operations. It analyzes marketing and sales data to inform its clients in the tourism industry.
“While companies like (Grizzly Hackle) may be great at running guided fly fishing trips, digital marketing is kind of like Mandarin to them,” he said.
Tipton said funding from the grant will help in the hiring battle between all tech companies, with some of TOMIS’ employees leaving for jobs at Amazon and Silicon Valley startups. The company plans on hiring 15 new employees within the next year and another 14 by the end of 2021.