Housing, jobs and development: Engen sees bright year ahead for Missoula

The West Broadway corridor may be one area of the city to receive renewed focus in 2019 – a year Missoula Mayor John Engen believes will bring new opportunities in jobs, housing and development. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

As Missoula Mayor John Engen looks to 2019, he sees a promising year in housing and economic development. Construction at the Riverfront Triangle is expected to begin, and Public Works will take a long-range look at transportation planning across the city.

“The story of 2019 will be largely a continuation of 2018 in regard to development,” Engen said. “A couple twists in that – we’ll have some interesting and productive policies for City Council to consider around housing, and how to provide more housing for more people in a growing community.”

As he has in each of the past several years, Engen sat down with the Missoula Current to discuss his vision for the year ahead and his administration’s priorities moving forward (watch the interview here). As was the case last year, housing topped his list.

With the exception of the recession, housing costs in Missoula have increased year over year, climbing from an average of $215,000 in 2008 to $300,000 last year.

Faced with those figures and warnings from economists that housing costs could slow economic growth, Engen convened a steering committee in 2017 to explore solutions. While Missoula isn’t the only city faced with challenges around cost and supply, the mayor believes local solutions and best practices can help resolve the issue.

The housing committee and its technical working groups are expected to present their recommendations to the City Council this spring. That could result in the city’s first official policy on housing.

“That’s the product of a couple years of hard work,” Engen said. “Usually those processes produce pretty interesting and meaningful results, so I’m looking forward to it.”

While the city awaits its housing recommendations, Engen also has an eye on development and economic growth. Investors and businesses remain bullish on Missoula, he said, and promising gains loom on the horizon.

Among them, Missoula International Airport will see continued growth in air service, and is scheduled to break ground this month on a new passenger terminal, one Engen said is long overdue.

Advanced Technology Group may also begin a major jobs expansion under its new owner, Cognizant.

“I say we’ve been discovered, and that’s true,” Engen said. “I think we’ve been discovered by companies who recognize the value of the workforce and some of the competitive advantages of a community our size.”

That was articulated last April by Fritz Lanman, CEO of ClassPass, who said corporations like his were leaving costly metros for small- and mid-sized markets like Missoula that offer quality of life and access to a talented workforce.

Engen believes other companies hold similar sentiments.

“I think what some companies are recognizing is this is a place where they can do business, and do it competitively,” Engen said. “Money is certainly a piece of it, but so is the quality of life in this city, and a lot of that work is paying off.”

Last September, Missoula Economic Partnership underwent a transition in leadership after a successful year in job growth and business recruitment. The organization is now under the leadership of executive director Grant Kier and economic development director Julie Lacey.

As such, Engen expects MEP to reinvent itself and capitalize off the city’s strengths and successes.

“MEP will continue to play a vital role in all of that, and quite possibly, a larger role in all of that,” Engen said. “I’m excited about the prospects.”

The city last year also logged its first full year of owning and operating Missoula Water, and it completed the annexation of 3,200 acres west of Reserve Street, which Engen said will aid in future planning.

While that move didn’t come without critics, Engen said it was necessary on a number of fronts.

“All of our growth plans talk about us being a compact city where we can provide services effectively,” he said. “It allows us to work more collaboratively with property owners in that neighborhood, as well as the airport and other government entities, to really maximize what we can do with precious land in the valley.”

Given the city’s steady growth, planning for and accommodating future development remains a focus as well, Engen said. After years of planning and negotiations, he expects to see activity at the Riverfront Triangle begin this year, saying “everything I’ve heard from staff is that we’re full speed ahead.”

A second downtown hotel is also expected to break ground on the corner of Pattee and Main streets this spring. Engen said the addition of new hotel rooms, as envisioned in the Downtown Master Plan, will buoy downtown retailers and spawn other investment.

“People in hotels are living downtown – they may be transient, but they’re living downtown,” he said. “So they’re spending money, visiting museums and restaurants, and they’re participating in the community. Any metro where there’s a thriving downtown hotel, there’s activity, and that activity always suggests to other commercial developers and residential developers that this is a safe place to be and a safe place to invest.”

Engen would also like to see residential development grow downtown and said there may be fresh opportunities to see that happen.

“My hope is, in addition to hotels, we have some other full-time residents downtown, and I think there’s some interesting opportunities for that,” he said. “Roam (student housing) is an example of that. You have 400 new souls living downtown and if you own a restaurant, you probably have to have smile on your face.”

While developers have invested tens of millions of private dollars downtown over the past two years, Engen would like to see some of that investment move down the West Broadway corridor. Reconstruction of the Higgins Avenue Bridge and Russell Street Bridge this year could help.

So could the Trump administration’s new Opportunity Zones, Engen said.

“Opportunity Zones appear to have tremendous potential to concentrate investment,” he said. “There’s a big tax credit at the end of the project. I know of at least two attorneys who are working to establish these Opportunity Funds that can be used to invest, so there’s activity on the ground today.”

Engen believes that future investment could bring new economic opportunities to what’s now considered a low-income census tract.

“My hope is that comes to pass,” he said. “I’d like to see quality housing there, quality infrastructure and quality services. That extra incentive that comes from those Opportunity Zones should be helpful.”

Engen said his administration is also looking for ways to improve snowplowing and build out the city’s sidewalk infrastructure. Long-range transportation planning is in the works, he said.

“We’re looking at ways to be better at snowplowing, ways to be better at delivering sidewalk infrastructure, and we’re doing some reorganizing in our Public Works department so maintenance is a little more manageable,” he said.

“Public Works, particularly on the transportation front, will also be looking at 20-, 30- and 50-year horizons and what we need to do as a community in terms of planning and investment to get there.”