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Missoula Economic Partnership grants manager Nicole Rush told City Council members on Wednesday that companies she’s working with in Missoula could create 400 new high-wage jobs over the next year.

Rush works with local companies, along with Missoula County and the Montana Department of Commerce, to apply for Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund grants, which partially reimburse businesses for creating good-paying jobs that bring money in from out of state.

“Since 2013 we’ve helped 24 companies create 532 jobs" in Missoula, Rush said. “Collectively we’ve received $3.7 million in (grant) support.”

Those jobs provide an average annual collective wage of $20.6 million in Missoula, she added.

“Missoula has secured more of these grants than any other city in Montana,” she said. “We have $2 million in pending applications. The next round of applications have six companies interested in just that round. We think over the next year those companies might create 400 new jobs."

They might not all get grants, she noted.

"But it’s a good indicator of jobs being created, and most jobs are paying the highest wage the grant program wants them to provide.”

To qualify for the grants, companies must pay at least 170% of the state minimum wage. To qualify for the highest award, they have to pay at least $19.65 an hour, which is the county’s average wage.

Rush was joined by MEP executive director Grant Kier as they gave one of their yearly updates to the Missoula City Council’s Committee of the Whole.

They highlighted local tech consulting company Cognizant ATG, which has won grant money in the past to create dozens of jobs in Missoula. Kier said Missoulians without tech backgrounds are getting high-paying jobs at companies like ATG.

“The tech sector has grown and it's perceived as one sector with a unified front, but people don’t realize how many people are moving into those jobs and succeeding in ways they didn’t think they could,” Kier noted.

The MEP is funded through private contributions from organizations and $100,000 in taxpayer money annually from the city. It employs four people, plans to hire an office manager soon, and will soon move into new office space downtown in the MCAT building on North Higgins.

Kier said he doesn’t think the organization’s focus should solely be on the numbers of jobs created in Missoula or the amount of development. He thinks the MEP should also look at things like affordable housing, affordable day care and other issues facing Missoula.

“If we’re not fundamentally addressing those issues, we are bordering on irresponsibility,” he said.

The MEP is also focused on using new tools to create economic development, particularly the new Opportunity Zone that encompasses Missoula’s Westside and Northside neighborhoods. Investors can get capital gains tax benefits by investing in projects in that area, thanks to new federal legislation.

Council member Heidi West made it clear that she’s particularly interested in making sure the Opportunity Zone in Missoula is utilized with thoughtful planning.

“I definitely look forward to see how we leverage this opportunity to the best possible extent in the community,” she said.

Council member John DiBari, who announced Tuesday he’s not seeking re-election, said he hopes the MEP’s efforts are “dovetailing” with the city’s goals of reducing carbon emissions and waste. He also hopes the MEP considers the harmful effects of gentrification before they pursue any project.

Council President Bryan von Lossberg expressed confidence in Kier’s leadership at the MEP, saying he and his staff bring “thoughtfulness” about what people cherish about Missoula. Kier was hired in October of 2018.

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