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To create prosperity in Missoula, the landscape for economic development must undergo a metamorphosis.

That was the heart of the message two Best Place Project consultants delivered Tuesday to some 40 community leaders in Missoula City Council Chambers. The briefing ended with probing questions from audience members about who will hold the reins and how the effort will move forward.

"What role do you see organizations like mine playing?" asked David Ports, executive director of the YMCA.

***

Earlier this year, Mayor John Engen launched the Best Place Project, a bid to take the economic development bull by the horns and create wealth in Missoula. First, he pulled together an economic development team. Then, the team commissioned two economic studies.

One, an analysis of strengths, weaknesses and opportunities paid for by St. Patrick Hospital, took a microscope to Missoula and recommended industries to target in recruitment. The other, paid for with a mix of private and public dollars, studied whether Missoula really wants - and will invest in - economic development. (See the related story on those reports.)

After consultants presented their findings Tuesday morning, Engen called for questions, and at first, no one responded. So he wasted no time asking one of his own.

"Anyone want to write a check today?" the mayor asked.

Maybe not today, but the checks really will be in the mail later on. To recruit and retain businesses, the Best Place Project needs money. The analysis by National Community Development Services found Missoula can raise an estimated $3.2 million for the effort over the next five years.

St. Patrick Hospital president Jeff Fee, a member of the mayor's economic development team, said the money his hospital invested in the reports was well worth it, and the business plans to contribute more.

"St. Pat's intends on being one of the large investors in the economic development initiative, and what our role ends up being is largely dependent on the other people that are brought to the table as well," Fee said.

***

Stan Luithle, with Nutritional Laboratories, wanted to know how the money will be spent. Luithle said if a company isn't growing, it's probably shrinking, and he came to the meeting because he doesn't want to just maintain the status quo.

"It's a very good question," Tom DiFiore, NCDS president, said of the financial details.

The short answer, though, is no one yet knows because that piece is still in the works. But DiFiore said one reason such efforts request large sums from investors is funders make sure their money is being spent the way it ought to be spent.

"Leaders follow their money," said DiFiore, whose firm is based in Atlanta.

His report calls for strong support from the public sector - one third of the pie - and notes the private sector will follow with the other two-thirds. When it comes to community investments, there is "no room for waste or duplication."

Some 65 percent of the Missoula business leaders interviewed as part of the NCDS report agreed $3.2 million can be raised; some 21 percent disagreed or said it was "doubtful," the report said.

***

Money isn't the only factor, though. DiFiore said in the next two or three months, the community should determine three pieces of the puzzle. First, the organizational bit - Who's doing it? Second, the governance piece - Who's on the board? Third, the program part - What is the organization doing?

"How do you see us moving forward with the governance issue?" asked Brent Campbell, president of WGM Group.

Engen said he and his economic development team will figure out that piece. He's seen boards made up of 20 or 30 members, but with people who aren't in positions to make change.

"At some point, we're going to have to make some difficult decisions," Engen said.

St. Pat's Fee agreed that part of the plan won't be easy, in part because the roles of current economic development players may change. At the same time, he said people who are throwing down money will want it figured out fairly quickly.

"It may be challenging in terms of keeping everyone at the table, but the fact of the matter is we need to move forward," Fee said.

Moving forward with the Best Place Project is about working together, Engen said - but DiFiore said Missoula appears to need some help fostering strong partnerships. In some 85 confidential interviews, he said NCDS heard the existing economic development organizations and efforts not only fail to cooperate, they actively compete and undermine each other.

That's an impediment to economic growth, and Engen noted another one. He said the findings show an inefficient local government is one barrier. So he said the city needs to deliver services in a better way.

"I am in the way - I being local government," Engen said.

***

The consultants also measure the quality of a place, and Missoula earned high marks in that regard. Good health also plays a role, as does the environment.

When Ports asked his question about the role the YMCA will play, he heard health is a serious consideration for companies looking to settle down in a place. So a strong Y helps, and it also reaps the benefit of successful economic development.

Garner, who often scopes out communities on behalf of corporate clients, said those corporations want to know about wellness, health, fitness and child care in a community. And DiFiore said if the Best Place Project succeeds in Missoula, it also grows the pot of money for nonprofits such as the YMCA.

The quality of a place isn't limited to the activities and development going on in its interior, though.

WGM Group's Nick Kaufman said Missoula may be able to control how its downtown looks, but the community sits within a forest, where the federal government has much control. So Kaufman wanted to know how the Best Place Project can reach the ear of the federal government and stress the role those in Washington, D.C., play in economic development in Missoula.

Engen pointed to an economic development authority in California as an example. The group has brought about success, and he said its accomplishments have earned it influence with federal players.

***

In one possible configuration, the Best Place Project will have a governing board overseeing two branches.

One will target business recruitment, and the other will be the Convention and Visitors Bureau to focus on tourism development - also a recruitment tool since people who have fun playing in a place want to bring their conferences there, too - and maybe even their businesses.

Carol Sharkey-Blodgett, who has done consulting for the Missoula Convention and Visitors Bureau, asked if convention bureaus typically fit into such economic development schemes.

Consultant Jay Garner, head of Garner Economics, said it's the case in communities that recognize tourism as a logical place for growth. Missoula appears to have a solid reputation to build on in that respect, too.

In a kind of personal focus group, Garner contacted people he knows in New York and asked them about their impression of Missoula. He said no one knew anything about the place, but people had favorable feelings about Missoula.

"They all had this positive image of Missoula - and that is a strong plus in your favor," Garner said.

To Blodgett, with Blodgett Marketing Group, the strategy to place the CVB within the Best Place Project seemed like a sound one. She sees a natural partnership.

"I've seen for years that economic development and tourism work hand in glove," Blodgett said. "The structure makes a lot of sense to me."

***

Missoula is competing globally and also against 18,000 other U.S. municipalities when it comes to economic development. Fee said it's on the map, but it isn't within striking distance yet.

"At the end of the day, whether you like hearing it or not, we're not even in the game," Fee said.

Now, though, there's the beginning of a direction. Instead of blindly pursuing biotech, say, and "chasing our tails the next five years," he said Missoula can have intelligent conversations with potential investors about industries that really work in this particular place.

Now, Engen said, it's time for him to delve into the nitty gritty. The conversation ahead won't just be about creating jobs, but it will be about the number of jobs and the quality. In brief, he said his mission is to crack the case on economic development here.

"For as long as I'm here, I think this is a big piece of my mission," Engen said.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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