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DirecTV is on its way to Missoula with 800 $9-an-hour call center jobs.

On Tuesday, company executives will be in town with Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and state and local officials to sign an agreement that almost didn't happen.

As with any deal of this magnitude, it could still fall through. The fine points are under legal review by attorneys for DirecTV and Missoula County, said Dick King of the Missoula Area Economic Development Corp.

DirecTV, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol DTV, hopes new call centers like the one slated for Missoula can help give the company a competitive edge against rival satellite and cable companies, said industry analysts and a company spokesman. On Friday, its stock rose slightly to $13.74 a share.

It seems that Missoula beat out its rival, College Station, Texas, thanks to plenty of phone work by Baucus and Montana Commerce Department director Tony Priete.

The county will construct and own the $12 million building that will house the technical call center, which will be located in a new 38-acre technology tax increment district in the County Development Park near Missoula International Airport.

DirecTV's lease will run 10 years. The lease terms depend on several factors, including final construction costs. But the rough cost for DirecTV for the building itself will be about $500,000 a year, King said.

Financing for construction will come from a number of sources. In all, Baucus secured nearly $2 million for the project. About $1.5 million is from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. He also got about $450,000 for worker training from the U.S. Department of Labor.

If DirecTV grows the call center as aggressively as it has planned, the company could get more than $4 million in reimbursements for training employees. The training would likely be conducted by the University of Montana College of Technology and Missoula Job Service.

"Max (Baucus) has been very helpful on this whole process. He spent a lot of time and effort. That was a big plus for us," King said.

At times, the road was rocky.

The El Segundo, Calif.-based satellite giant has been negotiating for months with Missoula County about the possibility of opening and operating a call center.

In September, it seemed the deal was done, but by late October, it had almost collapsed. There was a serious misunderstanding about the terms and amount of the incentive package, Baucus said.

"Things weren't going the way one would hope," he said.

Baucus telephoned DirecTV vice president Gary Qualls to ask about the negotiations. He had talked to Qualls before and had thought the process was moving smoothly.

Qualls told Baucus that "frankly, this is not working out," Baucus said.

King described the process in less stark terms.

"It's the same in any business negotiations. It's gone through several ups and downs, as it typically does. It's a process. Whoever coined the phrase, 'the devil is in the details' was right," King said.

"I don't want to be too critical, but it wasn't being done very well," Baucus said.

At any rate, the DirecTV deal was too important to let it slip away over a few misunderstandings, Baucus said. Plus, he relished the idea of a challenge.

So Baucus spent half an hour on the phone with Qualls until he had recommitted to the idea of bringing the jobs to Missoula.

A few days later, Baucus called DirecTV CEO Chase Carey from a cell phone while sitting at a table outside a McDonald's in the Minneapolis airport. The process needed a broker, Baucus said, so he jumped in. After visiting with Carey about the company and its prospects, Baucus laid it on the line.

"I told him that I'm very interested in this personally. I could tell that registered with him," Baucus said. "I told him I'm a customer."

With the process back on track, Baucus stepped into a lesser role while his staff members continued to work with King, Priete and representatives of DirecTV.

About a week ago, the biggest issues had all been resolved. Nobody made an announcement, but a tentative date was floated.

The role of Baucus and state officials didn't go unnoticed in College Station, said Todd McDaniel, interim head of the Research Valley Partnership, the nonprofit economic development agency there.

"That's something - for Missoula, the state, the county to get their arms around this to make the project happen," McDaniel said.

"We live in a very competitive economic world," he added.

The College Station area is home to Texas A&M and its more than 50,000 students, as well as research and development parks for a number of multinational companies, including Hewlett-Packard.

Research Valley sought DirecTV in order to add economic diversity to the community. But McDaniel doesn't get into bidding wars. His office will draw up a cost-benefit analysis and make an offer accordingly. If the offer is accepted, that's great. If not, that's OK, too, he said.

"If Missoula is successful, it will be a good project for the community," he said.

That's pretty much what Baucus said.

"I'm tickled. Hey, we had a little challenge. We had an opportunity to get a big payroll and put Missoula even more on the map. I'm looking forward to Tuesday," Baucus said.

King likes the idea of DirecTV in Missoula, too, and its jobs - which offer benefits and $9 an hour to start. But it's not time to celebrate, he said.

"We don't have a deal yet. We have an agreement that's still being negotiated. It's not signed yet," he said.

Assuming that everything goes ahead, construction of the DirecTV building will start soon.

"Let's talk about that Tuesday," said DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer.

Reporter Robert Struckman can be reached at 523-5262 or rstruckman@missoulian.com

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