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For the next year, Jason Rice and the team at the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce are going to be focused on solving Missoula’s workforce and affordable housing shortage. They'll also be working to urge employers to pay higher wages, planning for growth, and trying to diversify the economy to lift all community members.

Rice is the new chair of the Chamber’s board, and he believes the organization is building upon the last several years of collaboration and focus. A Missoula native and 1993 graduate of Big Sky High School, Rice attended Montana State University and is now the CEO of Territorial Landworks, a land-use consulting, surveying and civil engineering firm.

“I’ve always been interested in the business side of things and seeing how towns thrive,” he explained. “Just growing up around Missoula and seeing how the town looked in my formative years in the early '80s — it’s totally different."

And Rice believes business interests are community interests.

"Businesses are the heartbeat of the community," he said.

He believes Missoula’s economy is thriving in many ways, but he still sees challenges.

“Ultimately, workforce is still the biggest issue in Missoula,” he said. “Our labor pool is the big one. We’re worried about getting mothers back into the workforce. We did a survey and found a lot of mothers want to work but can’t afford to work (because of the cost of child care). We are not going to be the solution but we are helping to connect people to be the solutions and we are bringing ideas to the forefront.”

He said the Missoula Chamber is being recognized nationally for its collaborative, input-seeking approach to solving the problem.

“That’s a big area, is getting mothers back to work that want to,” he said. “Based on the numbers we have, there’s a lot that would like to.”

Companies are going to need to pay higher wages to make themselves competitive in a market where workers are in short supply and where housing prices have risen roughly 50 percent since 2010. So, he believes Missoula needs to make it easier for developers to build houses, and companies here need to pay better wages. Only then will people who live here be able to afford homes here on regular wages.

“You’ve got to get more supply and try to get higher-paying jobs, and it will start to correct itself,” he said.

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One problem is that because construction contractors are having to pay higher wages to skilled workers like framers and electricians due to a labor shortage, they pass those costs on in the final price of the house.

“So the cost of housing goes up because they gotta pay more,” he said. “It’s cyclical.”

As Missoula grows and the pace of development keeps running hot, Rice sees both downsides and benefits.

“Another thing that makes Missoula great is all the diversity of people,” he said. “I feel like we’re seeing some of the controversy that comes with people that kinda start not getting along because there’s so many competing interests. So there’s a big difference between some of the businesses and people who’ve been here for longer versus the new versus the different values that start to develop with the more people you have. So I think that gets to be challenging.”

But, the bigger Missoula gets, the better it will weather a recession in the future, he said.

“The bigger we get, the more sustainable we become,” he said. “All the biggest communities in Montana did better during the recession. Kalispell, which is generally smaller comparatively, felt the impacts greater because there’s just less pie to go around, figuratively speaking. That’s the biggest threat we could have, is a drop-off in the housing economy.”

He said the redevelopment of certain blighted parts of Missoula, such as the old K-Mart parking lot into the new South Crossing shopping center, has been positive.

“I come from four or five generations of Montanans,” he said. “I don’t see the growth necessarily as bad. I see it as necessary to support society but it’s a matter of how you do it.”

Missoula could do better in attracting outdoor recreationists and their dollars, he added.

“I don’t think we’ve capitalized on it as well as maybe other communities have,” he said. “You know, we’re between Yellowstone and Glacier so maybe it’s not as easy to capitalize on, and we are doing more in our community so that’s good to see. And I think that businesses that cater to that are doing well. You wouldn’t have had a Cabela’s here in the '80s or '90s. It’s a big change.”

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