MISSOULA — A year ago, most business and economic leaders in Missoula hoped the economy would find its way back to pre-pandemic norms by now. But as the pandemic grinds on, there’s a new realization that things may never be the same, and it’s time to plan for an altered economic future.
The Missoula Economic Partnership on Thursday detailed its work over the past year and presented its plans moving forward. On the upside, the local economy has performed better than the national average, with strong wage gains and a stable business environment.
But on the downside, new economic factors are at play including a limited labor force, rising housing costs, and a change in how people work.
“It’s not to say that folks didn’t struggle and businesses didn’t shut, but relative to communities our size, we really did do quite well,” said Grant Kier, CEO of MEP.
Despite the impacts of the pandemic, Missoula’s economic growth ranked among the top in the nation. The Milken Institute ranked Missoula at No. 22 nationally for top-performing small cities based upon such metrics as job creation and wage gains.
But it wasn’t the only metric indicating success. Missoula also ranked among the top 15 metros in the country for economic recovery. During the pandemic, twice as many businesses opened in the downtown district as closed.
While the successes are worth noting, new challenges have emerged that could impact the local economy. It’s there where MEP and its community partners are placing their focus, Kier said.
“Almost every industry in our community was poised for growth,” Kier said of the past year. “Their products and services were in high demand, but many struggled to identify and find the workforce to come and help them.”
With a stagnant workforce playing a factor in the economic recovery, MEP commissioned a study that helped reveal several factors that have kept some residents from taking open jobs. The lack of employees also has left many businesses struggling to meet growth opportunities. Some have closed for lack of workers.
Kier named the cost of childcare and housing when compared to wages among the issues.
“MEP has been focused on the income side of how to improve people’s live, but we do have to be mindful of the affordability side,” said Kier. “Part of our mission is to ensure that everyone has access to every opportunity they choose to seek in life and paths forward to make progress. But we also know there’s a lot of folks in Missoula who love where they are, love their job and lifestyle. They’re not looking for more income. So how can they continue to do well and afford to stay in the place they care about?”
To answer that question, MEP has worked over the past year to explore the conditions around economic recovery, and it’s developing a comprehensive economic development strategy to guide the way.
The strategy is prescribed by the Economic Development Administrations as a way to plan the economic future of a community. In the past, Missoula hasn’t had one, Kier said.
“We’ve been without one in Missoula County for the better part of seven or eight years,” Kier said. “We have been one of the only communities in the Western U.S. that didn’t have one of these plans in place, and because of that, we’ve been at a significant disadvantage, or even unqualified for some forms of funding from the Economic Development Administration that would help us form our goals around economic development.”
The plan remains in draft form, though the MEP Board of Directors is expected to adopt the document and release it to the public this month. At the heart of it, Kier said, the plan calls for an economy that’s equitable, inclusive and resilient.
“It should offer every resident a path toward prosperity,” said Kier. “It’s fundamentally about recognizing how we ensure people who are here doing our essential jobs can stay here and be here.”