Little more than two years ago, members of the Missoula City Council expressed frustration with the Missoula Economic Partnership and its perceived lack of communication, updates and public dialogue.
During a committee meeting that August, members of the council considered cutting the city’s $100,000 contribution to MEP, unless something changed.
“I would be remiss in not saying it bothers me that we’re funding a $100,000 line item with the lack of updates we get, and the lack of detail about the numerical benefits tied to the practical things we see,” council member Bryan von Lossberg said at the time.
Strong communication and public outreach rank high on Grant Kier’s list of things to do as he settles into his new role as MEP’s executive director. The organization announced its selection on Wednesday, ending a months-long search that began after James Grunke, the former CEO and president, resigned from the post to pursue other opportunities.
Kier, who’s well aware of those contentious moments in the past, is more focused on the organization’s future.
“There’s a huge opportunity for us to look outward, be more engaged in the community, and make sure we identify ways to serve individual businesses and people,” he said Wednesday. “We can be more consistent with our dialogue with the city and county, who are investing hard-earned taxpayer money in this partnership and deserve to know exactly what returns they’re getting on that investment.”
Kier formerly headed the Five Valleys Land Trust, where he helped grow the organization’s regional partners while protecting 40,000 acres of open space and public lands across western Montana. While he enjoyed the work, he left the post last year to take a run at Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House.
That bid fell short in the Democratic primary this summer, about when MEP expanded its search for a new director to the national stage. Kier has spent much of that time considering what he could bring to the organization’s table as it considers its own future.
“More and more, when working at Five Valleys, I was interested in how we could have a sustainable and growing economy while protecting our quality of life,” he said. “I spent my time off trying to envision what MEP could become. By the time I applied over the summer, I was really excited and hopeful I could compete against a strong pool of applicants.”
When Kier considers the organization he’s now entrusted to lead, he sees a long list of successes worthy of promotion. In recent months, MEP has helped bring several new companies to Missoula, including the Israeli tech firm 4Cast, and ClassPass, which is based in New York and San Francisco.
The organization helped bring American Airlines to Missoula and is working on a revenue guarantee to continue expanding air service. It has administered tens of thousands of dollars in job creation grants from the state, and in June, it commissioned an economic report focused on the city’s strengths and challenges.
“We have a ton of room to grow and collaborate between recreation and tourism, areas that draw a lot of people here and convert those into opportunities where people see this as a place to move their business and expand their businesses,” Kier said. “There’s still a huge potential for us to support the people here in our strong and growing business community.”
Kier also sees opportunity with the University of Montana. Under new leadership, it’s looking to reach deeper into the community to develop the city’s future workforce and tomorrow’s entrepreneurs.
The flagship institution launched its Innovate UM initiative earlier this year, one that envisions “One Missoula. One University.” Kier shares similar sentiments.
“I think right now there’s a really exciting opportunity to redefine what UM brings to this town,” he said. “If we can marry up world-class education and develop great talent and a great workforce here, we can continue to grow the economy, and see great partnerships between our educational facilities and the private sector here. There’s a huge opportunity in front of us.”
But Kier also sees areas for improvement, and that goes back to public outreach.
When Grunke left the post last year, former MEP board chair Scott Burke stepped in as interim director. With the organization now under long-term leadership, Kier plans to make the rounds and visit with investors and community stakeholders.
“I need to take the time to get to know all our investors and make sure they’re seeing a return on their investment in the partnership, and see a clear vision of how we’re going to deliver the results they can feel good about and continue to stay engaged in.”
Kier also plans to look at slowing the turnover MEP has experienced in recent years. It lost three employees in early 2014, including Brigitta Miranda-Freer, Melanie Brock and Desiree Stanley. In 2016, Jenn Ewan, who had been promoted to the organization’s vice president, left the organization that December.
“This is an entity that’s seen a lot of transition in staff over the past few years,” Kier said. “Part of that is an exciting opportunity for people, but we’ve got an opportunity to start thinking about bringing in some new talent and really trying to retain people over the long term so we can start building the lasting relationships any entity needs to really become an institution in our community.”
In the end, Kier sees an opportunity to blend the city’s economic potential with its quality of life.
“Right now, I think there’s real tension in Missoula and the city and the county about how we continue to expand people’s economic opportunity without compromising our quality of life,” Kier said. “If we can get that right, I think Missoula can be and will be a model for the entire Western U.S. in how we grow in a modern economy and provide and unparalleled quality of life.”