Grunke column: Missoula has the ingredients for economic success

In the movie version of A River Runs Through It, Norman suggests that Paul should follow him to Chicago. To which Paul replies, “Oh, brother, I’ll never leave Montana.” I have an inkling of how Paul felt.

I first came to Missoula two years ago, while a project director with National Community Development Services. My job was to help communities around the West raise funds for economic development. At that time, Missoula seemed like a nice place, but it was an assignment. I went about the business of fundraising assuming that when our numbers had been met, I’d move on.

I never did. I’ve worked in many communities and liked most of them, but Missoula’s potential is particularly attractive. We have the ingredients to be a beacon for economic development, and I feel compelled to help make that happen.

So here I am writing my first article as the CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership, an entity I’m proud to have been part of raising from the ground up. Like many startup initiatives, the work hasn’t always been easy, but when I look at what’s been accomplished, I see an organization that has come a long way since its launch 10 months ago.

  • We have provided more than 1,000 hours of free business development consulting services to nearly 70 Missoula-area companies. That’s vital because 80 percent of the new jobs we help create will come through incremental growth — two jobs here, five jobs there — from businesses already operating in our community.
  • Working with our strategic partners, we have helped Missoula companies secure hundreds of thousands of dollars of capital through the Big Sky Trust Fund and other sources to conduct feasibility studies, grow their operations and add jobs.
  • We have launched key business programs. For example, MEP Angel Network gives local investors opportunities to fund the growth of early-stage Missoula companies, while it also prepares those companies to seek and land additional venture capital from outside Missoula.
  • We are leading the effort to get a low-cost air carrier to Missoula, something the community has needed for years. Once successful, this effort alone will save Missoula companies about $5 million per year. That is money that can be directly reinvested in job and market growth.

Progress like that isn’t something the Partnership has made on its own. It’s taken the collective effort of the more than 80 private businesses that stepped forward with their investments of time, money and support. It’s taken the collaboration of our more than 30 community, state and federal strategic partners. And it has taken focused commitment to the end goals of creating 2,500 jobs and $150 million in capital investment in five years.

Yes, those are big goals. And, yes, big goals take time. In the meantime, there are things we can all do to improve the economic outlook of Missoula.

First, we can understand the importance of the foundational work being done. I’ve been part of economic development efforts in lots of Western communities. In my experience, the number of communities that succeed without collaboration and the right programs for helping local early-stage companies grow — is zero. Missoula now has those programs in place and numerous examples of effective, successful collaboration among community partners.

Second, we can all raise our hands. The Missoula Economic Partnership is just that, a partnership. We welcome investors to join us. We welcome ideas that further progress for Missoula. We welcome direct involvement in community programs. Because the key to growing local jobs is entrepreneurial growth, and the key to that is infusing the community with entrepreneurial spirit.

Finally, we can all celebrate the potential of Missoula. We have an unbelievably talented and diverse workforce, one that is highly educated and highly skilled. We have a university turning out talent in growth areas for the national economy, such as life sciences. We have a solid infrastructure with good transportation, reasonable energy costs and developable land. We have an amazing quality of life championed by passionate citizens who love their home.

And we now have a functioning, collaborative economic development effort that’s poised to help Missoula fully realize its potential as an economic leader in the West. I’m pleased to be continuing on as a part of that effort, and I look forward to working with all of you.

This column by James Grunke, CEO of Missoula Economic Partnership, originally appeared in the May 26, 2012 edition of the Missoulian’s Western Montana InBusiness.

Missoula Economic Partnership | 500 N. Higgins Ave. | Suite 300 | Missoula, Montana 59802 | P: 406.541.6461 | F: 406.541.6464