While Missoula’s Housing Crisis Worsens, The Old Sawmill District Developer, Ed Wetherbee, Is Desperate For More Public TIF Money

by William Skink

Yesterday the title of this KPAX article had me doing a double take: Almost zero apartments available in Missoula. From the link:

Heather Schwenk with Missoula Property Management said of the about 1,600 units it manages, only one is ready to rent.

Schwenk said she’s never seen anything like this in all her years in Missoula. She said usually there are about 50 or 60 units available, but the last time she checked the vacancy rate was less than 1%, around .005%.

This is insane, especially as students are returning. So what is going on here?

With around 5,000 less students looking for housing, the plummeting vacancy rate is being attributed, in part, to those dreaded out-of-staters:

The companies attribute the issue to people moving in from out of state, lack of options, and people staying in their leases for longer due to the pandemic.

Another looming factor in Missoula’s housing crunch is Cognizant’s coming move to the Old Sawmill District. This MC article from last month has Cognizant still “bullish” on investing in Missoula:

“We see tremendous growth,” Stergios told Missoula County commissioners last week. “We’re confident we’ll be able to achieve that growth. We do have some facilities construction that’s underway – yet to be announced but underway. We’re very bullish on continued growth in Missoula.”

Further in the article, after Stergios’ BULLISH declaration, the developer they are working sounds like they are already getting high on TIF supply:

“You will see homage to the grand arches of the world’s beautiful train stations, and the timeless prominence of university centers of education,” the developers said.

Did these grand plans embarrass Missoula’s TIF dealers? Was it these visions of grand arches and the timeless prominence of university centers that caused MRA to do this:

Last Monday, staff members of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, members of the Agency’s board and Mayor John Engen told Old Sawmill District developers Ed and Leslie Wetherbee that as it stands, the city will not be spending TIF to build new public infrastructure. The money would have been used to defray the cost of constructing buildings to house tech company ATG-Cognizant.

These developer-addicts sure didn’t like hearing how their government TIF dealer was trying to cut them off, so they decided to engage in some complaining about the unexpected high cost of building out their grandiose vision:

“Just as a matter of context, we just opened bids a couple days ago on these new buildings, and I’ll share with you costs came in dramatically higher than estimated,” Wetherbee said. “That puts more burden on being able to get some assistance. I will also tell you whatever assistance will be passed on directly to our tenants. It’s a combination of a cost-sharing kind of thing.”

If these comments don’t piss you off, the Wetherbees continued their maddening lament with this:

“We are in desperate need of some help,” he said. “I can assure you the two new buildings that are being worked on right now are very much a positive addition to the core of Missoula.”

I think it’s beyond disgusting that these wealthy developers are claiming to be IN DESPERATE NEED of some help. Why? Well, let’s take a look at who Ed Wetherbee is:

Ed has 30 years of experience managing VC funds and portfolio companies; as founder, builder, president and director of entrepreneurial companies; and as a mentor to others. He is co-founder and developer of the Old Sawmill District, a 45-acre, mixed-use urban Superfund remediation and redevelopment of formerly blighted industrial land in central Missoula, Montana. He is also co-founder of the Northern Rockies Regional Center in Missoula and Zhuhai, China, sponsoring projects for low-cost mezzanine funding.

Ed is a former chairman and currently Executive-In-Residence of University of Montana entrepreneurship and LA Cleantech Incubator programs. He was a partner in a national commercial real estate acquisition and development company. For more than 20 years, until 2010, he was a principal in a seed and early-stage venture capital company operating in Colorado, New Mexico and Montana. He was president of start-up companies that developed and operated three innovative utility-scale natural gas-fired electric power projects, a national scale agribusiness company, and served several interim roles including president of a clean-tech fund effort for the World Bank. Ed is Chairman of the Northern Rockies Advisory Board for The Trust for Public Land, a director of the Missoula Symphony, and has been director/advisor and committee chair of several boards of private, public and community service organizations. He is a graduate of the University of Colorado and the University of Denver. Ed and his wife, Leslie, live in Missoula, Montana and Boulder, Colorado.

Yes, this is the same Ed Wetherbee who is DESPERATELY panhandling MRA for more TIF money while your average Missoulian is wondering how they are going to keep a roof over their head.

I was curious about this Northern Rockies Advisory Board for The Trust for Public Land, so I looked it up. The Managing Director, Arnold E. Sherman, has an interesting pedigree. From the link:

Managing Director, Arnold E. Sherman is an internationally recognized expert in new market strategies and has worked and traveled in more than 90 countries. Since 1987, Sherman has served as president of Global Development Services, Inc., an international representational and advisory firm. Sherman is the founder and former chairman of the American Center for International Leadership, the premier organization for introducing emerging leaders of the world to their counterparts, particularly in developing democracies.

The connection Wetherbee and Sherman have with China is an important one. Before Trump’s trade war with China kicked off, soliciting investment from China through the EB-5 Visa Investment program was a strategy being used by Wetherbee for the Old Sawmill District. Here is an article featured at the Sawmill District’s website discussing this investment strategy from nine years ago:

The last of the wood waste has left the Old Sawmill District site.

Now, as the once-contaminated land is prepped for building, developers are turning to China for money to get the first phase of the $200 million project off the ground.

In exchange, the Chinese investors have the opportunity for a substantial return and a fast track to U.S. citizenship.

“Starting three years ago, we recognized with the way the economy was, we were going to have to look for creative and alternative ways to finance building development in the Old Sawmill District. The opportunity came up with Arnie (Sherman) and it just seemed to make a lot of sense,” Ed Wetherbee said.

I’m sure this made lots of sense to Ed nine years ago. But today we live in a different world.

And since we live in a world where tens of millions are unemployed and uncertain how they are going to survive, venture capitalists like Ed Wetherbee should take that desperation he is supposedly experiencing and shove it where the sun don’t shine.

If Missoula taxpayers were actually informed about the kind of “desperate” people who still feel entitled to panhandle MRA for public money, there would be a political reckoning for our current leadership.

If you appreciate the insights this blog provides, don’t hesitate to share my posts on platforms like Facebook. I believe MRA denied the Wetherbees TIF money because they know more people are paying closer attention to what they are doing with our money, and that scrutiny, I believe, is having an impact on the decision making.

So let’s keep it up!

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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