“Remarkable horsepower:” City taps UM students to solve real-world challenges

Noah Hill, a UM junior and member of the QUEST program, introduces the evening panel during a recent discussion on housing in Missoula. “It’s a cool way for students to dig into the place that Missoula is,” Hill said of the program. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Saying the University of Montana and the city of Missoula are inextricably linked, leaders from both institutions are forging ahead with efforts to build a stronger partnership, blurring the lines between town and gown as they consider the other’s future.

Along the way, they’re also turning to the school’s intellectual horsepower to help solve some of Missoula’s most pressing challenges, with housing foremost among them.

“We have the chance at the city of Missoula to take advantage of some of the remarkable horsepower that’s provided by the University of Montana,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said. “We’ve missed the boat in many cases in Missoula by not taking advantage of the tremendous resource that rests on the other side of Arthur Street. The more we take advantage of those opportunities, the better off we’ll all be.”

Students in the Davidson Honors College met with Engen last year as part of a new program aimed at challenging some of the university’s top students with pressing community issues, and housing emerged as the first task.

After more than six months of research, two student QUEST teams presented their findings this week. The winning team – yet undecided – will intern in the Office of Housing and Community Development, a program founded by Engen last year as the city looks to address its myriad housing issues.

“We came with some ideas and thoughts and sat down with (Engen) and some other people,” said UM graduate Reid Hensen. “When we brought the idea to him, he immediately thought of housing because it was on the forefront of his mind. It was a natural fit for this first year, and we’ll see what happens for next year’s task.”

Hensen and Brock Tessman, dean of the Davidson Honors College, established the QUEST program several years ago as a means to connect the university and the city. That effort took a leap forward this week with the inaugural housing presentation and the internships to be offered by the city.

“It’s a cool way for students to dig into the place that Missoula is,” said UM junior Noah Hill. “It enables students to work for and with the city of Missoula, solving and researching local problems that are going on.”

Collaboration and partnerships also emerged as a common theme at this week’s state of the community address hosted by City Club Missoula. There, UM President Seth Bodnar noted the university’s evolving mission, one he described as a process of “renewal” and “reinvigoration.”

He also touched on the relationship between UM and the city, saying their futures are closely tied.

“We have such an opportunity to fuel an ecosystem of innovation, of growth, in this great community,” Bodnar said. “This university and this community are inextricably linked, and I’m grateful to have an incredible partner (Engen) in this effort.”

Other collaborations between the city and the university are also emerging, including a push to create an innovation corridor extending from the UM campus west across town. Blackfoot this week launched its new tech incubator in C2M beta, and the university has plans for its own innovation campus – a process that will be detailed later this month.

And while the city looks to play a role in that technology push, it’s also working to resolve challenges around housing and affordability. Recommendations gleaned from the honors students could play a role as the city gears up to draft a plan.

“We spent two hours today talking about some of these very issues, and they’re very real, and they’re very meaningful,” Engen said at this week’s QUEST event. “The practical application of thought, talent and research in solving community problems is what I like so much about the QUEST program.”