Smart Growth Stories: Mayor John Engen on Missoula, Montana's sense of place

Since taking office in 2005 as the 50th Mayor of Missoula, Montana, John Engen has emphasized the importance of economic development, community building and affordable housing. His goal?

“When I’m done, I hope folks will say, ‘We worked to keep Missoula a place,'” Engen says.

For Missoula to achieve economic success and to remain a close-knit community in Montana’s picturesque mountains, Engen believes his administration should do everything it can to ensure the city is appealing to families and investors. That means having a thriving ‘Main Street’ downtown; amenities catering to young professionals and college students; access to transportation and housing options; and protection of natural land assets.

“We don’t have much going for us if we don’t have a decent place to live,” Engen says, noting that over the past several decades, Missoula has been forced to transition from a town with a resource-intensive economy (chiefly timber) to a services economy with ties to recent graduates and more experienced professionals who want to live in a small, rural town but still travel/telecommute to work in larger cities.

As mayor, Engen recognized early on that for this new type of economy to be successful, Missoula would have to seek community feedback about anticipated growth and plan for the future in a more coordinated way. He also understood that economic development is not separate from neighborhood development; investments in how a town looks and in how residents move around and interact with each other are intimately related to a town’s financial wellbeing.

When more people have quality jobs and access to affordable housing, fewer people have to make the kinds of difficult choices – such as a decision between food and shelter – that hold back community growth, Engen says. If the quality of life for most Missoulians increases as a result of efforts to reinvigorate downtown business corridors and to take advantage of the city’s unique assets, more Missoulians will be able to engage in community projects, schools, family programs, and local politics.

In 2009, Engen joined forces with community leaders in the private and public sectors to start a strategic job-creation and economic development initiative called the Best Place Project. The Best Place Project soon engendered the Missoula Economic Partnership, an economic development organization funded with private and public dollars.

“I don’t think any kid grows up thinking, ‘Wow, I want to grow up to be the guy who rewrites our
zoning code,'” Engen says. “It’s among the least sexy things a person can do. But it’s utterly necessary and the reason for that is growth and change are always difficult. If it happens in a chaotic, unpredictable environment, nobody wins.”

Antiquated zoning regulations had led to tough times in Missoula, so Engen and city officials launched a grassroots process to rewrite the zoning code with local community interests in mind. The Missoula City Council approved the new regulations in 2009.

“Our zoning code produced neighborhood tensions, caused folks to distrust one another, caused them to distrust their government,” Engen says. “It caused developers to distrust neighbors, to distrust government and to distrust one another. And if you were looking at our community from the outside, the answer was, ‘These folks don’t have their act together.'”

But by taking time to engage citizens and to learn what Missoulians wanted in their town, City officials put together a new zoning code that will drive business growth, facilitate great neighborhoods and keep environmental impacts low.

“It took a couple of years, one lawsuit and a whole lot of listening, but we got it done,” he adds. “Today we have a zoning code that reflects community interests and vision, that we hope provides some predictability to everyone who is involved in the community, and shows folks that may want to make an investment in Missoula that we know what we’re doing.”

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