Freer column: Putting Missoula on the map for relocating businesses

Lots of open space. Not many people. Good fly-fishing. And … not much more.

Those were the answers I received from a group of professional site selectors earlier this month, when I quizzed them about their perceptions of Montana. In a sense, those answers were exactly why I traveled to Dallas, Texas, with representatives of the Montana Governor’s Office of Economic Development and the Big Sky Economic Development Authority in Billings.

We spent two days meeting with some of America’s most respected site selectors – independent consultants who help companies decide where to locate, expand or move operations. Site selectors work with large and small businesses across industries, from fast-growing startups to pillars of the S&P 500.

Site selectors can profoundly impact local economies through the recommendations they provide their clients. Every day, their decisions bring new jobs to communities across America.

For that reason, educating site selectors about opportunities in Missoula has always been a key part of Missoula Economic Partnership’s strategy.

Historically, Missoula (and, for that matter, our state as a whole) has barely registered on the radar for site selectors. Mostly that is a simple function of population. Generally, site selectors focus on getting to know cities of 250,000 or more residents. Those cities are usually the easiest places to find the right combination of infrastructure, real estate, suppliers, professional services and workforce to support a given business’ particular needs.

According to traditional metrics, there isn’t a community of 250,000 people in all of Montana. But given the unique position of Missoula as a hub of industry, goods and services for western Montana, our community actually does offer characteristics similar to many cities of that size.

And regardless of Missoula’s population, we know from our own research and from the companies that have chosen to locate here that certain types of businesses are particularly well-served by Missoula’s location and assets.

In Dallas, I told the stories of companies such as LMG Security, TeraDact Solutions and GCS that are making Missoula a globally recognized hub of big data and cybersecurity innovation.

I talked about the success of GT Advanced Technologies and Advanced Technology Group, which both serve clients globally with professional back-office services.

And I talked about how companies such as Submittable and Rocky Mountain Biologicals are part of our growing information technology and life sciences clusters.

All these companies fall into the five “best-fit” industry sectors that we’ve identified as offering the greatest opportunity for new businesses in Missoula County: life sciences, IT, manufacturing, back office and creative professional services, and forest products and renewables.

Site selectors are numbers people, by and large. Even “soft” community characteristics such as quality of life end up scored and, ultimately, ranked in their reports to clients.

Because we’ve done our homework, we can provide the data site selectors need. Through the stories we shared in Dallas, we were able to provide deeper insight into our community’s surprising strengths.

Most importantly though, we won’t wait for them to come asking for information.

In the past two years, MEP initiated and hosted visits to Missoula by two nationally recognized site selection firms. And now, thanks to last month’s trip with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and Big Sky Economic Development Authority, we’ve connected with numerous firms in Dallas – home to more site selection firms than almost any other city in America.

Those site selectors now know, as we do, that there’s a lot more to this place than good fishing and empty space. In a real sense, we’re now on the map. Over time, we believe that will pay dividends to Missoula’s economy.

Brigitta Miranda-Freer was the former business development director of Missoula Economic Partnership. This column originally appeared in the July 27 edition of the Missoulian’s InBusiness.

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