The big picture – Cooperation within – and between – communities key to guiding state’s rapidly changing economy

In an economy such as Missoula’s that is growing and changing rapidly, there may be some urge to stop the growth or even force it in another direction, say some Missoula leaders.

By Jill FitzSimmons

But communities that adopt this strategy will pay for it in the end, says Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas. We really don’t have the ability to stop or slow down the changes already in progress, Kadas says.

What we do have is the ability to guide the changing economy – to look at what’s upon us and gain a sense of the opportunities that can come from a changing economy, Kadas says. So the growth is coming, but the question lies in how we will react to it.

“The real challenge from where I sit is how do we grow gracefully,” he says.

Missoula is a growing city surrounded by a growing area. By 2008, the six-county trade area that includes Missoula will have a larger population than the 10-county trade area that includes Billings, says Larry Swanson, associate director for the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West.

Missoula is evolving into a business center for western Montana, Swanson says. We are quickly moving from a resource-based economy to a service- and trade-based economy, he says.

That means we’re seeing growth in such areas as health care, special trade contractors, business services (computer services, advertising firms, accounting firms, etc.), real estate development, wholesale trade, engineering and management firms, communications, insurance agents and brokers, banking, general-merchandise stores and amusement and recreation services, according to information from the Center for the Rocky Mountain West. Declines are being shown in areas such as lumber and wood-products manufacturing and agriculture.

While the Missoula area nurtures one of the state’s fast-growing economies, its emergence as the largest trade area won’t mean it will be the No. 1 economic driver in the state, Swanson says. Montana is a diverse state, and economic conditions and trends vary widely throughout the trade areas; there is no real Montana economy, he says.

Instead, within the state there are many different sub-regional economies, and all of them are changing in various ways, Swanson says. Missoula, Billings, the Flathead area and Bozeman will emerge as the largest trade areas in the state by the end of the decade, he says.

Swanson worries that the community doesn’t see or appreciate what’s happening in Missoula. And, he adds, if you don’t see it, you don’t plan for it. Communities need to be asking how to take advantage of these changes. However, he says, to take advantage, you first must understand.

Some community and business leaders are trying to understand the changes knocking on Missoula’s door. The Missoula Area Economic Forum, hosted by the city in October, brought together various people from throughout the community to listen to Swanson and other guests speak about this changing economy.

Theresa Cox, executive director of the Missoula Convention and Visitors Bureau, attended the forum. Cox believes city leaders are doing a good job of anticipating the growth and will be prepared to jump whichever direction it takes Missoula.

“We need to position the city of Missoula in a place where we can kind of drive what happens, or at least have a give-and-take with what happens,” she says.

“It’s going to be a tough process to manage this change, you bet,” says Bob Tutskey, president of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce. “I think you have to accept the fact that it isn’t going to be an easy process.”

Kadas agrees the community needs to really take some time and understand how the economy is changing. Much of the change we’re seeing isn’t because of anything we are doing but what’s happening nationally and internationally, he says.

The other piece to study is the changing demographics of the area; we need to determine who’s going to be living here in 20 years, Kadas says. Population trends point to an increasingly older population as baby boomers reach their 40s and 50s.

Yet another piece, Kadas says, is to develop economic relationships with other regions in Montana, Kadas says. Having several sub-regional economies, not one large one, can be a handicap when it comes to working with the Legislature, he says. In a state that has one large economy, that one area becomes the catalyst for many new ideas, he says.

But in Montana, if one or two cities say they aren’t interested in something, an initiative will fail, he says. Because we don’t act as a single economy, we need the urban and regional trade areas to work together and support one another, he says.

Cities are going to be more important because of the shift from an economy based on natural resources to one based on services, Kadas says. As our economy becomes more complex, having that critical mass of services becomes important, he says.

So cities are the new natural resource, where real wealth and value is created, Kadas says. This is why you want your cities to function well, he says. In Missoula, housing and sewer issues will be at the forefront of our growth, he says.

As communities grow, more possibilities open up, Swanson says. The maturation of the economy will make it possible to bring in different kinds of businesses, such as administrative centers, that allow a community to build on better-paying jobs, he says.

In 10 to 15 years, Swanson also sees an extensive expansion in townhouses and multiple-housing complexes that will be home to the older populations looking to move into different types of housing. They will be designed into the fabric of the community, he says.

Work force training also needs to be built into the fabric of the business community, Swanson says. The University of Montana’s College of Technology is opening a classroom in January in Hamilton, bringing education to the people. More of this needs to happen, Swanson says, because that’s how you serve businesses.

“We can become a greater place, not just a bigger place,” Swanson says.

It’s hard to believe that Missoula won’t fulfill its potential, Cox says. She trusts that the people who live here – for the reasons they live here – are willing to capitalize on the changes ahead.

Kadas agrees. He says Missoula has a solid small-town spirit with many citizens committed to bettering the city.

“I’m confident that in general we are moving in the right direction and we kind of have a sense of the challenges and oppositions in front of us,” he says.

Still, Swanson says he’s anxious about Missoula’s future. In Missoula, we have a tendency to beat ourselves down, he says. We think our economy is doing poorly, that we live in a depressed area. This attitude can be damaging, especially in an economy that’s, indeed, growing, he says.

“It isn’t that it just colors our view of the future, it shapes it,” Swanson says.

Jill FitzSimmons is a Missoula free-lance writer and a frequent contributor to Western Montana InBusiness. You can e-mail her at .

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