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MEP: Missoula’s lack of office, incubator space hinders economic growth

Downtown Missoula
Posted at 8:36 AM, Mar 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-02 10:36:56-05

MISSOULA — The lack of office and manufacturing space in Missoula has emerged as a limiting factor for a number of growing companies, and unless it’s resolved, it could dampen the city’s economic future.

To address the issue, the Missoula Economic Partnership has received a grant from the Montana Department of Commerce to study the future of the Montana Technology Enterprise Center on East Broadway, and it has applied for a second grant to explore the redevelopment of the old library site.

A potential move by city and county government to the old federal building in the coming years could also free up valuable downtown property for other uses, including office and incubator space for Missoula’s growing companies.

“A lot of the companies have been growing sufficiently fast that they’re running out of room,” said Grant Kier, president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership. “Part of our goal with this year’s planing grant is how we plan the spaces that will give our companies that are growing more flexibility. We’re seeing that in almost every sector we’re focused on, and we need to get ahead of that.”

In January, MEP received a grant from the Big Sky Trust Fund program to conduct a feasibility study around the Montana Technology Enterprise Center. Located next to Missoula College, the center houses a number of startups ranging from biotech to distance learning in what’s often described as incubator space.

But given its success, the site is currently at capacity.

“We’re looking at how to redevelop that MonTEC site to meet the needs of the growing businesses that are in there, and what it needs as an incubator in the future,” said Nicole Rush, the grants administrator with MEP. “That project will probably be done in August or September.”

A number of companies have seen robust growth in recent years including Submittable, ClassPass and Cognizant ATG, which together have created hundreds of new jobs in Missoula, adding millions of dollars to the local pay sheet.

But all three companies have scrambled to find suitable downtown office space and one – ATG – has moved to the Old Sawmill District to accommodate its future plans for growth.

The old library block is being eyed as one potential remedy. The city acquired the property last year and plans to redevelop the site once the new library opens this summer. MEP has applied for a Big Sky Trust Fund grant to explore potential uses.

“One of the conversations we’re having with the city right now, and our hope of planning this library block, is creating flexible work space,” said Kier. “We’re looking at the economic development uses for that site in terms of creating jobs.”

Members of Cognizant ATG celebrate the opening of their new office space in the Old Sawmill District in 2018. A new technology and innovation campus is planned within the district to accommodate one of the city’s fastest growing firms. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)Last week, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency agreed to contribute to the study by Dover, Kohl and Partners that will create a preferred development scenario for the lot, which encompasses an entire city block in the downtown core.

Dover-Kohl recently completed the new Downtown Master Plan and will approach the planning of the old library site as an addendum to the larger vision for downtown Missoula.

“It’s an entire city block, and we have an opportunity to accomplish a whole lot of things,” MRA Director Ellen Buchanan said at last week’s board meeting. “We know it will have to involve parking. We think it will include housing, commercial space, and involve flex space to provide incubator space for all these tech companies that are starting up here, or other businesses.”

The city and county of Missoula are also exploring a potential move to the old federal building, which was vacated years ago by the U.S. Forest Service. A move to the facility would allow both governments to locate most departments and services in a single location.

But it could also free up a number of downtown properties, including the county administrative building and City Hall. Both sites would present a new opportunity to redevelop the property and meet some of the city’s most pressing needs.

“I’m hoping that within a three-year time horizon we might be able to locate into the new federal building, which effectively would open up this (administration building) property and part of the parking lot and City Hall,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, saying those properties would likely become available for redevelopment.

Kier said the shortage of office and research space crosses a number of sectors including tech, manufacturing, professional services and back office support. The lack of available space could slow job growth, he said, and three to four years may be too long to wait for some properties to open.

“Most of these companies are projecting growth at rates faster than waiting three years,” he said. “We’re not seeing signs of things slowing down locally. We’re also seeing needs and opportunities outside the downtown corridor as well.”

At least one office is planned for the early phase of development in the Riverfront Triangle, but those behind the project haven’t said who the tenant will be.

“There’s major holes in downtown that could really be made much better use of than they are right now,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick.