Several Missoula County companies are poised to create jobs, while the Opportunity Zone here needs to be strategically marketed to investors across the country.
That’s according to staff members at the Missoula Economic Partnership, who gave an update to the board of Missoula County Commissioners on Wednesday.
“You’re going to see me a lot next week,” explained MEP business initiatives director Nicole Rush. “So far I have three company presentations scheduled.”
Rush coordinates with Missoula County to help companies apply for Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund grants from the Montana Department of Commerce. The grants, which can be up to $7,500 for each new job created, go to companies that pay high wages and bring in revenue from out-of-state.
Rush said energy efficiency company Satic USA, tour operator software company TOMIS, and pedal-cart manufacturing company Coaster Cycles are all planning on hiring new positions soon and will be applying for grants. She said TOMIS hired 16 of the 19 jobs they planned during the last funding cycle.
Two other big companies in town, ClassPass and Consumer Direct, are also planning on adding jobs, according to Rush.
“I need to get an updated hiring plan but they’re adding quite a few positions,” she said of ClassPass, which is a company that developed technology that provides customers with greater access to fitness classes.
Grant Kier, the executive director of the MEP, said he's been talking with a few companies that aren’t ready to announce hiring plans or relocation efforts yet.
“Generally, across every sector we’re working in, we’re hearing from people that they’re anticipating continued growth in those industries,” he said. “Almost to a company, most people feel like they have the potential to add employees. We’re seeing that in manufacturing, retail, real estate, across the board.”
He said that while Missoula’s tech industry is “obviously” seeing a lot of growth, he feels that sector has gotten most of the media attention even though many other non-tech companies are thriving.
“There’s a perception of seeing success in only one sector,” he said. Kier said he feels that many companies are doing well, and the goal of the MEP is to advocate for a diverse array of industries.
Cola Rowley and Dave Strohmaier were the only two commissioners present, as Josh Slotnick was attending a grant review committee meeting.
Strohmaier asked Kier about Missoula’s Opportunity Zone. It’s an area that bounds the Westside and Northside neighborhoods in town where investors can save on capital gains taxes if they invest in new development. The Opportunity Zone legislation was created by the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, and there are roughly two dozen such zones in Montana.
“We have been asked by a few folks in the development community and local attorneys to try to convene a stakeholder meeting to figure out our understanding,” Kier explained.
Strohmaier wanted to know if it would be wise for the Montana communities with Opportunity Zones to pool their resources and market the state to investors at the national level, rather than competing against each other.
Kier said he felt Missoula is “ahead of the game” and while he appreciates the spirit of cooperation, he thinks strategically marketing Missoula specifically to five or six identified investors would be a better method.
“I think we’re better off being laser-focused on who we’re trying to attract,” he said. “The exciting thing is we’re already ahead of other communities and if we’re competing, I want to maintain that competitive advantage.”
The two commissioners also discussed the lack of municipal sewer systems in Bonner and Seeley Lake.
“Without a doubt, lack of wastewater treatment there has led to a lack of housing and economic development and water quality,” Strohmaier said of Seeley Lake. “Bonner has been talking about the need for centralized wastewater.”
“My sense is so much of a barrier to economic development is fundamental core infrastructure, and (Bonner) is a place that feels like a lot could happen. That would be a nice place to director more energy and attention.”
Rowly said an old marketplace building in Bonner on Highway 200 could have been developed if it had a sewer system connection.
“We’ve had people looking into buying that building but they backed out because you can’t have a business there because of the septic,” she said.
Rowley also lamented the fact that cheaper land costs in the communities surrounding Missoula have led to a surge in storage unit businesses popping up.
“You can’t enter Lolo from any direction without first seeing storage units,” she said. “I wish we could stop it happening in any of the communities. It’s a huge problem for East Missoula, Bonner and Lolo.”