Business of the Year: Montana West Economic Development

The staff at MWED and FCEDA often work behind the scenes, but the rapid progress of the Glacier Rail Park and emerging Kalispell Trail investment have shined a light on their significant impact

By Myers Reece
From left, Lara Russell, Christy Cummings, LeAnn Howell, Stephanie Juneau, Jerry Meerkatz, Dorothy Meyer and Kim Morisaki of Montana West Economic Development are pictured at the front entrance of their building in Kalispell on Dec. 18. Montana West Economic Development is the Flathead Beacon’s 2019 Business of the Year. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Montana West Economic Development (MWED) isn’t technically a business, although it plays a hugely impactful role in the business community, helping to launch, attract, relocate, grow and nurture a broad diversity of companies in the valley.

But neither “Business Incubator of the Year” nor “Economic Development Cornerstone of the Year” rolls off the tongue. So, semantics aside, MWED is this year’s well-deserved “Business of the Year” recipient for many reasons, but especially for its role in bringing the long-anticipated Glacier Rail Park to full fruition and attracting investment interest along the forthcoming Kalispell Trail corridor.

The Kalispell-based economic development organization and its sister entity Flathead County Economic Development Authority (FCEDA) were instrumental in the years-long process of establishing both the industrial park and the rail-to-trail project, collectively called Kalispell Core & Rail Development.

MWED and FCEDA share the same staff of seven but have separate boards, missions and functions, with the latter a quasi-governmental entity serving as the economic development arm of Flathead County that focuses on larger-scope economic visioning and infrastructure, while the former is a private nonprofit that contracts with FCEDA and specializes more in one-on-one collaborations with individual businesses.

But their visions, capabilities and access to resources often merge and complement, as they did with the rail park and core redevelopment, which experienced a momentous year in 2019. In December alone, MWED announced two new projects along the trail corridor, in anticipation of the railroad tracks being pulled up next year, while also revealing that FCEDA signed a letter of intent with Northern Plastics to completely fill out the industrial park with tenants, joining CHS Kalispell and Northwest Drywall.

Northern Plastics plans to build, in stages, 90,000 square feet of production facilities on nine acres and operate a transload facility on an additional half acre that will be available to local businesses that use rail service but aren’t located in the rail park.

“I was super optimistic about the rail park filling up fast, but it happened way faster than I expected,” said MWED Director of Marketing and Business Development Kim Morisaki. “It’s thrilling.”

The Kalispell core area plan and rail park are ideal examples of the long-range thinking and patience that are inherent to economic development, a discipline that the staff at MWED and FCEDA is continually refining. Although a number of its better-known recent projects have been in Kalispell, MWED works in communities across the entire valley, while FCEDA also operates with a county-wide mandate.

City officials in Kalispell had for decades hoped to revitalize the rail corridor through town, while business leaders had eyed a rail park in the valley to spur industry. The city and business community ultimately partnered to unite the two long-held dreams in a cohesive dual undertaking, with MWED and FCEDA playing key roles in facilitating the process.

Ever the forward thinker, President and Chief Executive Officer Jerry Meerkatz is already examining potential options to expand the rail park beyond its now-full borders, while MWED is exploring a variety of opportunities presented by investors’ interest in setting up along the future trail corridor.

One such developer, Bridgewater, recently announced the purchase of the former CHS Country Store on U.S. Highway 2 next to Walgreens and plans to renovate the building into an office space with Berube Physical Therapy, Alpine Lighting and a third tenant.

“Bridgewater is the first of what I think will be many projects of fairly large investment that will get announced in the next couple years along the trail,” Morisaki said.

Shortly after the Bridgewater news, the 4th & Zuri retail location on Fourth Avenue West announced it is expanding into a multi-use facility with Airbnb condos, office space, two boutique shops, a coffee shop and gardens and benches along the trail.

MWED is a private nonprofit that serves as a key resource for, and collaborator with, a broad range of “business professionals, entrepreneurs, developers, governments, and community organizations to strengthen the Flathead’s business and lifestyle assets,” according to its mission statement. It’s a useful first stop for anybody with business ambitions, and may continue serving, depending on the project, as a valuable source until ribbon cutting and beyond.

The nonprofit has an open-door policy, with staff willing and eager to listen to the proposals, questions and ideas of everybody from first-time entrepreneurs trying to launch a small business to long-established major employers hoping to evolve. Staff might connect people with other resources and mentors, help refine a business plan, conduct market research and financial analyses, work to secure them financing or incentives such as grants, provide advice and guidance, or assist them in a variety of other ways.

The list of companies MWED and FCEDA have impacted in the valley, some visibly and many behind the scenes, is lengthy and continually growing.

Other MWED-affiliated services include the Montana Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC); Peerspectives; PowerHouse Flathead; and Making Montana, a popular annual event that includes the Kalispell Mini Maker Faire and a manufacturing and technology expo. The organization is also working to encourage investment in tax-incentivized “opportunity zones” created through the 2017 federal tax reform legislation.

Even with all those services, Morisaki says many people in the broader public aren’t aware of MWED, which Marketing and Communication Director Dorothy Meyer has been diligently working to improve through community outreach.

“Our job is to make it easier for private businesses to do what they do,” Morisaki said. “We’ve been trying to get the word out that you don’t have to do it yourself. We’re here.”

In addition to Morisaki, Meerkatz and Meyer, the staff includes Stephanie Juneau, loan officer; LeAnn Howell, office administrator; Christy Cummings, government contracting advisor; and Lara Russell, accounting manager.

Meerkatz says his organization operates off several basic pillars: listening; offering advice and connections; partnering; investing; and celebrating success. Investing refers to both time and money, either by providing financing through its own funding sources or by partnering with, or connecting to, lenders. MWED is a Certified MicroBusiness Development Corporation through the Montana Department of Commerce.

Although it’s a business organization, Meerkatz said MWED ultimately is built upon people and relationships, including its 100-plus members who are critical to the nonprofit’s operations.

“Whether we invest time or money,” Meerkatz said, “we’re really looking to invest in the people themselves.”

For more information about MWED, visit www.dobusinessinmontana.com, and for FCEDA, visit www.flatheadcountyeda.com.