Air service, housing, business retention on MEP’s list

James Grunke, president and CEO of MEP, touched on the organization’s economic activities Wednesday during a mid-winter meeting with investors. Job growth, air service development, business retention and housing served as the day’s primary themes. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

The Missoula Economic Partnership could soon be managing nearly $2 million in job creation grants, the latest of which would provide more than 100 new jobs if the applications are successful.

James Grunke, president and CEO of MEP, touched on the organization’s economic activities Wednesday during a mid-winter meeting with investors. Job growth, air service development, business retention and housing served as the day’s primary themes.

Over the past year, MEP has absorbed the responsibilities once held by the Bitter Root Economic Development District. The organization had managed most of the Big Sky Trust Fund grants for local job creation and other economic efforts.

But when BREDD disbanded last year, MEP assumed management of the grant funding.

“We have absorbed most of those functions that used to be done by BREDD, and it has caused us to do much more long-range planning for the community,” Grunke said. “At our core, we’ve always been focused on business startup, retention and attraction. We now have some additional activity, including the Big Sky Trust Fund.”

The trust fund represents state funding through the Montana Department of Commerce that helps qualifying companies create new jobs. Grunke said MEP has submitted several new applications under the program, including Project Spokane, a data company currently located in Bonner at the former mill site.

“They’re on their way to becoming North America’s largest data center,” Grunke said. “When they’re done building, they’re going to have 55,000 servers running in that building. They came here as a business attraction effort for us last spring.”

Project Spokane currently has 20 employees working at the data center, though the new application would help the company add 80 new workers over the next 18 months.

A second grant through could also help a yet-to-be named manufacturing company add 80 new jobs. The company is looking at Missoula as a potential site and has made several trips to the city as part of its vetting process.

“These are tools we always partnered with BREDD through, but we never managed them before,” said Grunke. “If we get these two grants, we’ll be managing just under $2 million in job creation grants. Companies do not get the money unless they create the job.”

Grunke said MEP is also working to complete a study on the city’s workforce. The results could shed light on the barriers that prevent companies from growing, whether it’s the city’s low unemployment rate, the skills of the workforce or a lack of job training.

“When we talk to area employers, we always hear the biggest barrier to growth is access to workforce,” Grunke said. “Past that statement, I don’t really know what that means. We need to understand what the state of the workforce looks like in Missoula.”

A parallel study headed by the Missoula Organization of Realtors will also explore the city’s housing issues. Both workforce and affordable housing have been identified by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana as possible threats to the city’s economic future.

“We can’t attract workforce into our community if we they don’t have a place to live,” Grunke said. “We have to do these parallel to each other. We’re trying to figure out how to get this solved.”

MEP also remains engaged with air service development, including efforts to land American Airlines with nonstop service to Dallas/Fort Worth. Year-round service on Frontier Airlines to Denver and possible service to Boise on Alaska Airlines are also areas of interest.

Currently, Frontier flies its Denver route on a seasonal basis. When it leaves the market during the winter, air fares out of Missoula jump as much as 25 percent. Grunke said that affects all Missoula travelers.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com