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Missoula’s building, planning industry sees little signs of pause; optimistic about future

Missoula’s building, planning industry sees little signs of pause; optimistic about future
Posted at 3:18 PM, May 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-06 17:18:16-04

As Missoula’s economy emerges from a months-long slumber and businesses establish a new normal, city leaders and those in the building industry are using optimism to define the future.

Development Services this week said it has seen little change in the number of building permits being sought for projects across the city. And work at local planning and engineering firms hasn’t slowed, according to industry insiders.

Aside from redevelopment plans at the Riverfront Triangle in downtown Missoula, including a hotel and events center, most projects are advancing as planned, said Brent Campbell, president and CEO of WGM Group.

“The Drift is the only project that is really on hold right now, but everything else is going full steam ahead,” he said. “We moved our company home seamlessly – technology allowed us to do that. Our productivity is up and demand is there.”

While Montana didn’t escape the coronavirus pandemic and saw its share of infections, early measures to shelter at home, combined with social distance, helped slow the spread. Campbell attributed those measures for enabling the state to take measured steps toward a phased reopening.

The state’s strong economy heading into the pandemic didn’t hurt. He said WGM Group is hiring entry-level engineers to keep pace with demand. Like Missoula, activity in Bozeman and Kalispell is also strong.

“The municipal market is strong, our environmental market is strong and the institutional market is really strong,” said Campbell. “It helps to be diversified. We learned that after 2008.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen described the future in terms of optimism, and while it may take time for the local economy to get the wheels turning, he believes the city will stay the course and continue to see its share of new development.

“I think there are so many factors involved here, but I see positive signs in the construction and building industry,” he said. “Once businesses can reopen, cash starts flowing again, confidence increases and investors think places like Missoula are worth investing in.”

The city of Missoula issued more than 70 building permits in the month of April, including two projects valued at a combined $8 million. One of those permits included a new warehouse for Summit Beverage while the other included a new building for Missoula International School.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the pace of permitting hasn’t slowed and construction and planning continues at a number of sites, including the Mullan area, where a federal BUILD grant will help the city get ahead of anticipated growth.

Across the city, construction also continues on a number of projects that began before the pandemic hit, including the AC Hotel in downtown Missoula and an office building off South Brooks Street.

Work on the new passenger terminal at Missoula International Airport also remains on pace, airport officials have said. Those behind the redevelopment of the Riverfront Triangle said in March the rebound of the national economy would likely dictate the future timing of that project.

“We’ll get there,” Engen said. “If you look at any map, the number of cases and all of the hard work this community did to keep numbers low and ease suffering, people are going to look at places just like this one the same way they looked at them before and see the quality of life.”