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Montana's Outdoors: Good For...Software Developers?

About 200 people attended the festival's business panel at the Wilma Theater in Missoula
Eric Whitney
About 200 people attended the festival's business panel at the Wilma Theater in Missoula

Groups promoting the economic value of public lands in Montana held their third annual Last Best Outdoors Fest event to get their message out in Missoula yesterday.

The event brought bands, beer and information booths to Caras Park downtown, and a panel of business leaders to speak at the Wilma theatre.

"We aren’t just a place you can come visit, but we’re a place that you can come make a living," said Evan Tipton, who was on the panel.

Tipton is the founder and CEO of TOMIS, a Missoula based digital marketing agency for tour operators. Tipton said the value of Montana’s outdoor amenities goes beyond attracting tourists, it makes it possible for companies here to attract top talent away from bigger markets, like Silicon Valley, which he competes with for employees.

He says there’s great ROI  - return on investment - on having an environment where business can attract talented people and grow.

"Fifty percent of our employees are UM graduates," Tipton said, "so it really is bringing new talent in, and there’s a very strong ROI on someone that makes a software developer’s salary, in terms of the houses that they buy. Increases taxable base. But then, retaining our talent - keeping our kids here can be hard to do."

This recognition that Montana’s outdoors has economic value beyond attracting tourists is something that is only lately becoming widely ackowledged in the state, says Marne Hayes with the group Business for Montana’s Outdoors. The group formed seven years ago to highlight the value of the state’s natural resources beyond traditional extractive industries like logging and mining.

"I do think that we don’t talk enough about the peripheral industries that are benefitting from the outdoors," Hayes said. "The people that are saying, 'I could be anywhere. I could be in a major city, I could be – fill in the blank – and I’m here in Montana because the outdoor way of life, and the quality of the outdoor way of life is so important to what happens in my work culture and what my employees enjoy, and what drives innovation, that hat’s why I’m here.' I don’t think it’s a new message, I think it’s a message that we just need to keep reiterating because the periphery is what we don’t talk about enough."

And what Hayes calls the periphery of outdoor-related jobs helps drive businesses that more obviously benefit from Montana’s natural amenities. Todd Frank runs the Trail Head outdoor clothing and equipment shops in Missoula.

"A group of physicians brought in a doctor who they were trying to recruit to Missoula," Frank said in remarks from panelists. "They introduced me and they said, 'this is John, he’s going to be a new physician with us, and you need to hook him up with everything he needs to be happy in Missoula.' Which means a boat, and backcountry skis, and on and on goes the list. And so, I look at it as not necessarily as a tourism thing as much as it is really growing our whole economy based on the assets we have in our public land, and so for me it’s incredibly important."

Last Best Outdoors Fest was sponsored by Business for Montana’s Outdoors, the Montana Wilderness Association, the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Wilderness Society.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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