Selkirk economy booming

New arrivals, especially retirees, pump money into area
once defined by forest products industry

Becky Kramer
Staff writer

About 100,000
people make their
home in the Selkirk
region, an area that
takes its name from
mountains that push
north out of Bonner
County into
Washington and
southern British

Pockets of high
unemployment, as
well as picturesque
beauty, characterize
the region. But
despite downturns
in the timber industry, the area recorded impressive gains
in both population and income in recent years, a new study

Over the past 15 years, population grew by 30 percent,
and employment and real income grew by 50 percent in the
combined U.S.-Canadian Selkirk region, according to a
study by Tom Power, chair of the University of Montana’s
economics department.

The trends held true on both sides of the border.

"I had heard so much talk from Canadians about the
depressed economy that was in so much trouble," Power
said, "that I was surprised to see the patterns that typified
northeast Washington, the Idaho Panhandle and northwest
Montana — patterns of economic vitality — found on the
other side of the border as well."

Power credits growth in tourism and recreation jobs for
part of the gains. But even more dramatic growth came
from retirees and families moving to the area in search of
better lifestyles, he said.

"The panhandles of Idaho and the Nelson-Creston (British
Columbia) areas aren’t becoming Sun City or huge
retirement destinations, but folks from large urban areas
that are trying to stretch their dollars do find the cost of
living attractive," Power said.

The pension and investment income from retirees has
become more significant than mill income to the Selkirk
economy, he said. Forest products payrolls contributed
more than $100 million to personal income on the U.S. side
of the Selkirks in 1999, while retirement and investment
income brought in more than $450 million.

"Nonemployment" income represented 43 percent of the
total personal income on the U.S. side of the Selkirks that
year. The figure was also significant in Canada.

"The increasing presence of retirees and their rising
incomes could explain some of the economic vitality of the
region, despite declines in the traditional natural resource
base," the study said.

Other migration to the area was significant as well, the
study said. About 18,000 new residents moved to the
Selkirk region in the last decade.

On the U.S. side, about 28 percent of the 9,000 new jobs
created during that time came from self-employment.
Power speculates that many of those jobs were created by
young professionals who moved to the region for its
scenic beauty and small town attributes.

Sandpoint resident Susan Daffron and her husband, Jim
Byrd, fit the profile. The couple’s computer programming
company was their ticket out of San Diego in 1996. With
e-mail, they can easily communicate with clients all over
the country.

"When I told one of our Southern California clients that we
were moving to Idaho, and they said, `Oh cool!"’ Daffron

The couple could also buy a log home with acreage for the
price of their condo near San Diego.

Power’s study was commissioned by the Spokane-based
Lands Council, an environmental group that pitches the
importance of natural beauty to economic development.
But people want more than pretty scenery when they
relocate, Power said.

"People don’t just want to live out in the boondocks. The
social environment matters to people, too," he said.
"They’re drawn by the natural environment, but they’re
also looking for the amenities that come with a small city.
Young families care about schools, and older folks care
about the level of crime."

Power said similar migration trends are playing out in the
Ozarks, in coastal Maine and the Badlands of South Dakota
— other areas traditionally dependent on resource
industries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is so
intrigued by the phenomena that it’s trying to identify what
combination of scenery, climate, recreation and
community amenities is most successful at drawing people
to rural areas, he said.

Power’s work is frequently cited in environmental
publications. Among his premises is the idea that timber
and mining dependent areas have chronically high
unemployment rates, even during boom times. People are
attracted to those jobs by the high wages, and will move to
an area in hopes of getting hired. Conversely, laid-off
workers are less likely to relocate, because they hope to be
hired back into that high salary.

Power’s economic studies generate varying responses in
rural communities.

"Those who are focused on the economy in the rearview
mirror think this is just a secret attack on the real
economic base, on mining, logging and agriculture," Power

But the conclusions are second nature to chambers of
commerce that have spent years sprucing up downtowns
and creating parks in an effort to recruit companies, he

Emphasizing quality of life is consistent with the Bonner
County Economic Development Corp.’s recruitment
strategy, said director Kevin Clegg. Companies considering
moving to Sandpoint are drawn by the area’s beauty and
small town atmosphere as well as lower business costs.

"We’re trying to attract the small to medium companies
with the great growth potential," Clegg said. "With
technology, we’re much more connected than folks in the
past commonly thought of North Idaho."

But some of Power’s conclusions were greeted with
skepticism by Stefany Bales, spokeswoman for the
Intermountain Forest Association, a forest industry group
in Coeur d’Alene.

"He’s constantly trying to make the case that our resource
industries aren’t necessary. I don’t see why," Bales said.
"The environmentalists are cloaking the anti-forestry
rhetoric in this economic stuff."

It’s more productive to recognize the contributions each
industry makes to a diverse economy, she said. Without
high-paying timber jobs, local towns couldn’t support the
services and amenities that help recruit other companies,
Bales said.

There’s a widespread perception that the timber industry is
shrinking in the Idaho Panhandle. However, that’s not true
in every county, said Kathryn Tacke, a labor analyst for
the state of Idaho.

In Boundary County, timber employment actually grew by
150 jobs between 1991 and 2001. In Bonner and Boundary
counties, the numbers have hovered at around 1,500 jobs
over the past 20 years, despite cyclical upturns and
downswings, Tacke said.

Though mills close, smaller operations, including wood
furniture and cabinet shops, spring up in their place, she

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

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