Missoula partnership backs state grants, eyes growth in high-wage jobs

The Missoula Economic Partnership is watching the legislative process in Helena and the future of a program that has helped create 435 high-paying jobs in Missoula County over the past five years.

On Tuesday, two Missoula-based companies were authorized to apply for a new round of job creation grants through the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund, a program managed by the Montana Department Commerce and implemented locally by Missoula County.

If the program remains intact, local advocates believe it will continue to pay dividends in the local economy.

“It’s been a very impactful program in Missoula,” said Grant Kier, executive director of MEP. “It has allowed the state to invest over $3 million in our local companies in long-term economic growth that’s stable and diverse and helps move our local economy forward.”

The state grants help reimburse businesses for certain job creation and expansion costs and are awarded to firms that export a product and pay a living wage. In Missoula County, that’s roughly $19.56 an hour, or nearly $40,000 a year.

Tuesday’s applicants included Cognizant ATG and PatientOne, both located in Missoula. Commissioners also approved a $75,000 reimbursement through the program for 22 jobs already created by ATG.

“Jobs that qualify for this program have to pay an employee 170 percent of Montana’s current minimum wage,” Kier said. “We spend most of our resources applying for jobs that pay above that $19 – almost $20 an hour. We’ve seen a lot of growth from those higher-paying jobs from this program.”

Despite the program’s success, concerns have risen over the past year that the program may be targeted by the Legislature as a potential area to cut. Before the 2019 Legislature got underway, program advocates anticipated defending the program during the session.

“I think it’s still under threat, not because it’s not valued, but because some people try to deploy these funds in other uses, which makes it hard to keep the program alive,” said Kier. “There’s more demand than we have resources for, and I think that message is getting through to Helena and we’re optimistic the program will be strong for the next couple years.”

In Missoula, a number of firms have benefited from the program in recent years, including Orbital Shift, VIM & VIGR, LumenAd, Consumer Direct, the Audience Awards and ClassPass.

ATG has also been a successful applicant, and coupled with its recent acquisition by Cognizant, it’s poised to add a number of new jobs in Missoula over the coming year. The county cleared the company to pursue another round of state funding on Tuesday.

“ATG has been one of our best performing grants,” Nicole Rush, the business initiatives director at MEP, told commissioners. “They consistently have outperformed their hiring quotas and pay really high-paying jobs.”

Kier told the Missoula Current that other local companies are growing and will likely apply to the program for assistance.

“We’ve been working with a handful of companies in Missoula that are ready and able to execute on hiring the people once the grants are awarded,” Kier said. “We’ll see some applications in April moving forward in the next round, and we’re talking to people trying to apply for the round of funding after that. We see a lot of opportunity for these grants in the months and years ahead.”