Grunke hints at California air service, new potential at Smurfit-Stone in update to city

James Grunke, president and CEO of Missoula Economic Partnership. (Missoula Current file photo)

The Missoula Economic Partnership offered an optimistic update to the City Council on Wednesday, noting recent announcements on expanded air service and the successful recruitment of an international technology company.

James Grunke, president and CEO of MEP, updated new members of the council on recent economic headlines generated over the past few months, many of which fit with the organization’s long-range objectives.

He also hinted at several new announcements that could come later this year, including an additional airline route to California. He strongly pointed at possible year-round service to San Francisco.

The route is currently seasonal.

“Delta announced daily service this summer to Los Angeles, and we’re in conversation with another airline to have another California service year round,” Grunke said. “In addition to the service that American Airlines will start to Texas, they also announced a summer seasonal route to Chicago.

“Now we’ll have American directly competing against United this summer,” he added. “You should see dramatic airfare decreases around June. It’s going to be a good year to travel in Missoula.”

While MEP expanded its focus in its latest five-year plan, it also retained the organization’s earliest goals, including business expansion, retention and growing startups.

Last fall, the organization met with ClassPass and its site selection team to help sell Missoula as a possible location for the company’s third North American office. The firm has since opened its downtown office, which could grow to 200 people over the next few years.

The company currently claims locations in New York and San Francisco.

At the same time, Grunke said, MEP met with the Israeli company Eltel Technologies during last year’s Select USA conference hosted by the federal government. While no announcement has been made, Missoula remains one of the cities Eltel may consider for location.

“We met Eltel at the Select USA conference last year, and we’d also developed a fairly robust relationship with the Israeli consul general,” Grunke said. “They’re a sophisticated homeland security type company and they were in Missoula around November. First quarter was their timeline, and I haven’t heard anything further.”

Grunke also remains optimistic that something could unfold at the former Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. pulp and paper mill in Frenchtown.

In November, Missoula County commissioners approved a settlement with Wakefield Kennedy, which will pay roughly $967,000 to settle delinquent taxes at the site on behalf of M2Green, the property’s absent owner.

While M2Green is no longer in the picture, both Missoula County and Grunke have said the new agreement could help put the property back into development. Grunke reiterated that optimism on Wednesday.

“I’m probably the most optimistic that we’ll see something this year happen at Smurfit-Stone than I ever have been since I’ve been here,” Grunke said. “It has the opportunity to provide lots of things for us. Not just industrial and commercial development, but there’s opportunity for housing. A lot of the things we’re grappling with exist on that 3,000 acres if we can put it back into production.”