Rural growth long, hard work-Even with aid, local Idaho leaders key to development

SANDPOINT _ George Currier dreams of a hotel and
convention center for St. Maries. But at the moment,
he’d settle for an RV park in the town of 2,600.

Becky Kramer
Staff writer

"Every day in my office, we have someone wanting a
place to park an RV," said Currier, director of Timber
Plus, an economic development agency in Benewah
County. "We’ve been able to convince a closed
restaurant to reopen, but we haven’t been able to
convince anyone to take a chance on an RV park."

Ditto for a building that would allow a local cedar
coffin company to expand. Ditto for a museum that
could turn a local resident’s Corvette collection into a
tourist attraction.

So much potential, so many obstacles.

From St. Maries to Bonners Ferry, North Idaho’s rural
communities are stepping up efforts to attract new
jobs and bolster tourism. Funding for local economic
development directors was key to Gov. Dirk
Kempthorne’s $3.9 million rural initiative. Last year,
12 distressed communities — including those in
Boundary and Shoshone counties — received grants
through the initiative to hire full-time economic

"Economic development is really a local issue. Local
leadership is the key," state Commerce Director Gary
Mahn said. "These grants are making a difference
out there."

But economic development is hard, long-term work,
community leaders told the Idaho Economic Advisory
Council during a Thursday meeting in Sandpoint.

"Ninety percent of the things we try go cold," Currier
told the council.

Bonner County is a good example of the issues and
the challenges facing rural Idaho communities, said
Kevin Clegg, executive director of the Bonner County
Economic Development Corp.

Over the past decade, Bonner County has made
impressive strides in diversifying its manufacturing
base. Where it once had 510 manufacturing jobs
outside of sawmills and logging, it now has 850.

Population growth has helped the local economy,
and so has new development at Schweitzer Mountain

"We have a work force with a good work ethic and a
wide variety of skills, and affordable space for
manufacturing," Clegg said.

But the county’s unemployment rate still remains
between 8 and 10 percent. Many workers lose their
paychecks after the ski season ends, or when
mountain roads get too soggy to support logging

Though the Bonner County EDC has assisted with
the creation of 58 new jobs over the past two years,
those gains will be swallowed up this year by a
150-person layoff at Coldwater Creek in Sandpoint,
Clegg said.

"Times are rough," he told Mahn. "Now, more than
ever, it’s important to keep up the sales force. It’s
important that the state continue to sell Idaho, to
continue planting the seeds that Idaho is a good
place to do business."

The state also needs to pitch in more money for
infrastructure, others said.

"Part of our issues in rural Idaho are infrastructure. It
makes it very difficult to recruit industries," said Robin
Ponsness, economic development director in
Boundary County.

High-speed Internet access, for instance, is
prohibitively expensive in Boundary County, she said.
Companies or neighbors sometimes go together to
erect satellites.

Silver Valley Economic Development Director Vince
Rinaldi said he lost out on two new recruits because
of infrastructure needs. They were small
manufacturers, employing between 10 and 20 people

The companies would have been a good fit for the
valley, Rinaldi said, but they couldn’t afford to buy
undeveloped land and put in their own water and

The Silver Valley needs a business incubator, where
small companies could rent cheap space until they
grow large enough to make it on their own, Rinaldi

Benewah County has similar needs, Currier said. The
cedar coffin company was started by two retired
sheriffs who operate the company out of their
garages. They want to sell, and Currier has lined up
investors to purchase the company. But there’s no
logical place to relocate it, he said.

•Becky Kramer can be reached at (208) 765-7122 or
by e-mail at [email protected].

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