Three of Missoula’s most powerful decision-makers gave an update on everything from watershed restoration to jail diversion to housing at the annual State of the Community forum hosted by City Club Missoula at the DoubleTree Hotel on Monday.
Missoula County Commissioner Cola Rowley, University of Montana President Royce Engstrom and Missoula Mayor John Engen each spoke in depth about past accomplishments, current trends and future challenges.
Engen acknowledged that Missoula is facing a workforce shortage and if the city hopes to address that problem by attracting new workers, they will need to find places to live.
“When I think about solving the workforce shortage, I think about where they will live,” he explained. “We did a lot of work thinking about housing before the recession, but not a lot of doing. Now, we have an opportunity to do.”
Engen talked about the need to not only build housing for “gazillionaires,” but also for people who are addicts.
“This is a chance to build housing for folks who cannot leave a bottle or a pill alone – their life is a fog,” he said. “They oughta be able to live. It’s a fundamental human right to adopt a notion to have safe, decent housing in our community. We have the opportunity to work together to do that. The best of us should be reflected in the eyes of the least of us.”
Responding to an audience member who noted a lot of new units are being built and a lot of vacancy signs are up already, Engen said Missoula still needs more housing options.
“What we need to do moving forward is understand inventory, and what I think we’re experiencing is a fundamental shift in the interest of some younger folks and some older folks in owning,” he said. “So the multifamily market, if you talk to the folks who are building this stuff, is far from the saturation point. In fact, they’ll tell you that we need to tip up more. And what I don’t understand for sure today is how many units we’ll need over the course of 20 years – what that housing stock should look like and what it oughta cost.”
Engen, a Missoula native, said that the city’s infrastructure has improved a great deal over the last half a century and it is expected to continue to do so.
“When I was growing up, Reserve Street was not a street, there were a lot fewer people and a lot fewer opportunities,” he said. “The state of the community is not only good but, in my opinion, the best it’s been. There are changes that are afoot that are immense and remarkable. They involve redevelopment. Over the course of 10 years, we will not recognize the Broadway corridor, the North Reserve (Street) corridor, the Russell Street corridor or Brooks Street. And we will not recognize them for good reasons. Not post-apocalypse-ism or zombie stuff, but commerce and housing and recreation and economic development. There will be schools and trails and roads that connect opportunities and all of us.”
Engen said that because the city made zoning changes, growth is happening in a regulated, wise manner instead of in an ad-hoc fashion.
“Zoning isn’t sexy, but we can make choices about how we regulate growth,” he said. “We had a really old zoning code, but we fixed it. We did it with exuberance and excitement. We can create a community that can be sustained over time.”
Engen also made it a point to say that he and the City Cuncil believe refugees fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria should be accepted, although he doesn’t believe Missoula is a likely landing spot for many of them simply based on geography. He also wanted to push back against some political rhetoric that suggests that America is in dire straits.
“We hear relentlessly that we live in a horrible and frightening place,” he said. “I don’t think Missoula is a horrible and frightening place. Part of my responsibility is to remind people over and over again that we are willing to invest in it. We invest in it through our property taxes, our time, our energy, our thoughts and hopes, and we invest children. If we continue those investments for all kinds of good reasons, you all know the value of that investment.”
He said the city’s continuing fight to acquire Mountain Water Co. – for which he joked he’s earning an honorary law degree – is a decision that will positively affect Missoulians 100 years down the road.
“I read an article from the Missoulian from 1924 that the city had a chance to buy the water system for $300,000 and they passed,” he explained. “We can’t afford to be shortsighted. We have to plan for 100, 200 and 300 years from now.”
Rowley gave an update on the county’s efforts to restore Ninemile Creek west of Missoula, an important wildlife habitat that was destroyed by decades of gold mining early in the last century.
“This is an 11-year partnership with Trout Unlimited and the Lolo Watershed Group to restore this tributary and watershed piece by piece,” she said. “We’ve been working on 121 acres of floodplain to reduce sources of erosion, contamination and stream temperatures.”
Rowley said native bull trout, a threatened species, are returning to reclaimed areas for the first time in decades.
“This will improve fish and wildlife habitat and access to recreational activities,” she said.
Rowley said she and her peers at the county level are working hard to complete the Missoula to Lolo trail, which she said will be an important economic driver. She also said she is working to come up with creative ways to reduce overcrowding at the Missoula County Detention Center.
Engstrom’s speech focused on the fact that the University and the Missoula community are inexorably linked, and success or failure for one will surely mean the same for the other.
He said a new initiative – UM Health and Medicine – will provide a wide variety of programs in the health professions that will prepare students for high-paying and much-needed jobs.
He also said he isn’t overly concerned about how a new student housing project, set to be constructed on East Front Street this year, will affect housing capacity in university-owned buildings. Engstrom believes that the price and location of university housing will still be a highly appealing option for students.
Engen also addressed falling student enrollment numbers at UM, which has forced the university to lay off 27 people – and reduce 192 full-time positions in all – to address a $12 million budget shortfall.
“It’s no secret that we’re challenged with enrollment these days and we’re working very diligently to address that situation,” he said. “It’s at the top of the mind for everyone. Every one of you is a recruiter.”