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MEP lunch

Mickey Ogg of the Consumer Direct Care Network shows off a picture of the new massive headquarters the company is building in the North Reserve area.

A company that manages a huge data center near Missoula is in the process of applying for a state grant to create 80 high-paying jobs in the area over the next two years.

Global Big Data, LLC, which provides hosting services and security validation services for Bitcoin networks – a complicated peer-to-peer digital payment system – currently has 20 employees and is applying for $600,000 in Big Sky Trust Fund grant money.

Funded by the state’s coal severance tax, the BSTF grant money reimburses business up to $7,500 for each new employee they hire as long as the company’s revenue comes from out of state and employees are paid at least 170 percent of the state minimum wage. To get the top award, each job has to pay the Missoula County median wage, which is $18.50 an hour.

A tech company bringing in money to Montana and hiring dozens of new highly paid employees is good economic news for Missoula, and that’s why it was one of the major announcements made by James Grunke, the president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership, at the spring investor luncheon.

“They are on their way to becoming North America’s largest data center,” Grunke said of Project Spokane. “They are going to have 55,000 servers, and right now they only have 12,000. It’s pretty exciting. This grant we have applied for is $600,000 to create jobs in Missoula and Missoula County.”

The deadline for the grant was Wednesday, and MEP grants manager Nicole Rush was busy working with a representative of Spokane Project to finalize the paperwork. They should know within two or three months whether they will get the money.

Grunke was speaking to a crowd at The Public House in downtown Missoula, a new meeting space on Broadway. The MEP was launched in 2011 and the majority of the budget comes from private sector investors – with the balance coming from the city, the county, the University of Montana and Missoula International Airport.

Grunke said that MEP got $25,000 in state matching funds to conduct feasibility studies for other companies thinking of moving here. He said an unnamed company is thinking about moving 80 jobs here, and an announcement should be made by the beginning of the summer.

Two of the main issues that act as a barrier to job creation in Missoula are a workforce shortage and a lack of affordable housing, Grunke explained. The unemployment rate in Missoula County is 3.6 percent, a full percentage point below the national average.

“When we talk to area employers, we’re always told the No. 1 barrier to growth is access to workforce,” Grunke said. “But beyond that statement, what does that mean? Is it a lack of access to the right people, or the right skills or training programs?”

He said MEP has applied for a $27,000 state grant to do a feasibility study on the state of the workforce. He also explained that a lack of housing stock for entry-level homebuyers is hampering businesses’ ability to attract and retain workers.

“We can’t attract workforce into our community if they don’t have a place to live,” Grunke said. “You have to do these parallel to each other.”

Grunke said a collaboration between the Missoula Organization of Realtors, the city, the county and local developers is studying how to solve the problem.

A lot of people hear about how there are 4,000 entitled lots in Missoula County that people could build on, but the fact remains that those lots aren’t getting built on for various reasons, he said.

“There clearly is demand, and there must be supply, so we need to address that,” he said.

The MEP is focused on attracting businesses with high growth potential such as those in the manufacturing, lifestyle sciences and tech sectors. They are also focused on increasing the air service to Missoula, and next year they’ll apply for federal funding to try to entice a direct American Airlines flight from Dallas to Missoula.

Managers at two other large Missoula companies that have benefited from Big Sky Trust Fund grants also spoke. Tom Stergios, the senior vice president at Advanced Technology Group’s Missoula Solutions Center, talked about how he started out with just one other employee five and a half years ago and now the business has grown to well over 100.

The average salary for 70 of the companies’ workers is more than $80,000 per year, and ATG will generate $6.7 in income for existing employees in 2017.

“We are a consulting company that works in the technology space,” he said. “We have global clients, so that means we get to work with global bill rates, which allows us to have a higher salary, fortunately. And all of our clients are outside of Montana, so all of our money comes from out of Montana.”

However, Stergios said most of his employees come from Montana, and 70-80 percent of his workers graduated from the University of Montana.

“We’re on track to hire another 30 people by the end of the year,” Stergios said.

Mickey Ogg, the chief commercial officer at Consumer Direct Care Network in Missoula, said the company employs over 360 administrative staff in Montana that support 1,700 direct support workers, or caregivers. He said the incentives like the Big Sky Trust Fund grants were one of the reasons the company chose to build a massive new headquarters on North Reserve Street, which they hope to move into by April.

“We’re excited to be an anchor for that North Reserve revitalization,” he said.

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