Community leaders: Missoula faces dawn of “renewal,” though challenges linger

Missoula Mayor John Engen, right, Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, center, and University of Montana President Seth Bodnar deliver the annual state of the community address at City Club Missoula on Monday.

Affordable housing, wages and a balanced approach between conservation and economic development stood among the top issues broached by Missoula’s institutional leaders at the annual state of the community address on Monday.

Though times are good and the state of the community is strong, they told the gathering at City Club Missoula, today’s challenges will require creative solutions and strong partnerships moving forward.

“We must and we are thinking creatively about balancing affordable housing, agriculture, wildlife habitat and community character, and doing so in a way that doesn’t undermine the very quality of life that defines this place,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

In his first state of the community address, Strohmaier cited the city’s acquisition of its drinking water system, the creation of the Milltown Dam State Park later this summer, and the payment of delinquent taxes at the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. mill site as recent community success.

Still, he said, work remains on other fronts, including the cleanup of Smurfit-Stone and funding mine reclamation and habitat work in the Ninemile drainage. Along the way, he added, addressing climate change must play a fundamental role in local government.

“Climate change is real, and we in local government have the moral obligation to make a difference,” Strohmaier said. “We must and we are preparing ourselves for the effects of a changing climate and nurturing community resilience through good planning, such as updating our community wildfire protection plan and overhauling our 1970s-era land-use map.”

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar also touched on the school’s evolution, a process he described as one of “renewal” and “reinvigoration.” Since arriving on campus this year, he has realigned his administration, hired new cabinet members and rekindled planning efforts.

Other changes are likely to follow, he said.

“Excellence requires choices, things on which you will focus and sometimes areas you will no longer sustain,” he said. “We at the university are going through that process right now. Some choices, some decisions, are difficult. The result of this process will be and already is a more focused university.”

While the university rekindles its focus on student support, Bodner said he and Missoula Mayor John Engen have vowed to work more closely together to address a range of issues, including wages, workforce needs and early plans for an “innovation corridor.”

Success, Engen said, lies in education, opportunity and collaboration.

“We have a tremendous asset there (at UM) that we need to continue to take advantage of,” he said, adding that Missoula stands at a crossroads.

“Missoula can be a place where some people do really, really well, and be happy with that, or be a community where everyone does well, and be proud of that,” he said. “We’re planning with UM, planning with Missoula County commissioners, planning with the private sector and public sector, to ensure this a place that can be all it can be for everyone.”