Michelle Huie file

Michelle Huie, the founder of VIM & VIGR, says Missoula's high cost of housing limits her ability to retain skilled workers.

Wages are rising slowly in Missoula County, but there still aren't enough high-paying jobs to keep recent graduates and other skilled workers from often moving away to seek a better financial future.

That’s according to a panel of entrepreneurs who spoke about Missoula’s emerging economy at the monthly City Club Missoula meeting on Monday at the DoubleTree Hotel.

Grant Kier, the executive director of the Missoula Economic Partnership, said Missoula County's average weekly wage increased 3.47% from 2016 to 2017, which outpaces the inflation rate of 2.1%. That's the good news, but the bad news is that housing prices in Missoula have risen 20% here since 2015, according to the Missoula Organization of Realtors. So the city's wages aren't keeping up with the cost of living.

“Wages are low in Missoula,” said City Council member Gwen Jones during the question-and-answer portion. “We keep waiting for wages to go up just because we have such low unemployment.”

The panel consisted of Kier along with Fanny Astruc-Diaz, the CEO of a biotech company called DermaXon; Michelle Huie, the founder of health apparel company VIM & VIGR; and Joe Fanguy, vice president of strategic development at Blackfoot Communications.

Jones wanted to know if any of the panelists expected to see wages rising in their industries soon.

“The short answer is yes,” Fanguy answered. “There is demand for high-level talent.”

Fanguy pointed to companies like Blackfoot and ClassPass, a fitness tech company here that has been on a hiring spree lately. As such companies hire more and pay good wages, that will boost the city’s median income, he said.

Many audience members wanted to hear about barriers to business and economic development in Missoula.

Astruc-Diaz said her company tries to pay people well, but can’t match the salaries offered in places like California.

“It’s hard to recruit people from California,” she said.

The cost of airfare in and out of Missoula is also a barrier to successful economic development, she said, because investors, customers and business partners have to pay more and often travel for nearly 24 hours to reach the Garden City.

Huie said the high cost of housing here limits her ability to retain skilled workers.

“Housing is a huge issue. I hear it all the time with people in my company,” she said. “According to a lot of people, we have an above-average salary. But I recently lost someone who moved to Austin (Texas) and one reason was because of housing."

The cost of living compared to wages is a "constant topic of conversation," she said.

All of the panelists mentioned that Missoula is susceptible to an influx of people from places like Seattle, Portland and California who want to enjoy outdoor recreation opportunities and who come with money.

“The biggest impact on housing prices here is we have an extraordinary place and a limited number of houses,” Kier said. “People who want to buy a home here come from all over the world with vast amounts of resources. If we build nice homes, people from Texas and California are happy to buy it and use it three weeks a year and VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) it the rest of the year.”

Kier said he met with a group of new attorneys at a prestigious law firm in town, and many of those well-paid professionals were still concerned that they couldn’t afford a home here, where the median sales price is hovering right around $300,000.

“These are well-educated people with some of the best jobs in town,” he said. “It’s a real issue.”

Clint Burson, the government affairs director with the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, wanted to know how companies can keep recent University of Montana grads here rather than try to lure them back after they’ve already left.

“Don’t forget you can never eat the landscape,” Astruc-Diaz explained, referring to how companies need to pay workers a competitive wage. “It’s not something you can sleep on.”

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