A Missoula City Council member told a crowd of business leaders on Wednesday that solving Missoula’s affordable housing crisis means more employers have to start paying a living wage, and the community will have to embrace infill.
“One of the greatest hurdles we face is NIMBYism,” Heather Harp said, referring to the shorthand for “Not In My Back Yard,” a phrase used to describe people who support or don’t voice objections for things except when it might occur in their own neighborhood.
Harp was speaking during the public comment period after the Missoula Economic Partnership’s annual investor breakfast on the University of Montana campus. New MEP executive director Grant Kier gave a speech aimed at inspiring and energizing the crowd, then asked audience members to come up with comments about how Missoula’s business leaders can improve the economy and collaboration going forward.
Harp said that while many like to blame government regulations for creating a lack of housing supply that has led the median home sales price here to climb over 30 percent since 2010, people who object to new housing exacerbate the problem. She pointed out that a small subdivision was protested by neighbors recently, and she also pointed to University District neighborhood residents’ protests against accessory dwelling units as an example of NIMBYism.
“We all recognize we have an affordable housing problem, but we all want to blame everyone else and don’t want to do our part,” Harp said.
Kier and MEP board chair Scott Burke gave speeches extolling the progress the MEP has made over the last few years to attract high-paying businesses to Missoula, much of which has been covered extensively in the past by the Missoulian. They talked about companies like ClassPass, Submittable, ATG and LumenAd, all of whom have hired many University of Montana graduates.
Kier specifically mentioned one young woman named Taylor McDermott, who went to business school at UM and had career options all over the country. She chose to work in Missoula at ATG, and Kier pointed to her story as an example of Missoula tech companies being able to attract and retain top talent.
For her part, McDermott said employers need to think about hiring people with all types of backgrounds, not just business majors. At ATG, she said, some of the best employees studied sociology or astrophysics in college.
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“As you’re looking for employees to fill your business, don’t just look at the business schools, look everywhere,” she said.
Burke noted that because of an initiative called Take Flight Missoula, which collected money from local donors to provide revenue guarantees to airlines entering the market, there is an increased seat capacity of 110,000 more seats flying into Missoula from June of 2018 to May of 2019. He said more competition means cheaper prices and more connections to business hubs like Dallas.
“I flew into San Jose, California, and I think it was 240 dollars cheaper this year than it was last time I did it,” he said.
Burke also praised the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund grants, which reimburse companies for creating jobs that pay high wages and bring in revenue from out of state. The money comes from the state’s coal severance tax. Burke said the Missoula Economic Partnership has overseen $868,500 worth of BSEDTF grants that have gone to eight local companies for a total of 123 new workers.
Kier was hired by the MEP in September after a long stint as the director of the Five Valleys Land Trust and an unsuccessful campaign in the Democratic primary election for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat.
In his speech to the crowd, he stressed the importance of the business community working with UM and vice versa. While he didn’t get into any specific policy outlines, he did say he’s excited about the level of collaboration he’s seen and the level of interest from the city in providing infrastructure and services to support economic growth. Kier said the city is not without challenges, but the community has strengths that can overcome those.
“Thank you for your trust in me,” Kier concluded. “There’s no place in the world I’d rather be than here.”