Bonner County's economy, which until recent years was heavily dependent on the timber industry, now depends almost as heavily on the hospitality industry and several major employers. A layoff or shift in emphasis in any one of them causes a shiver throughout the county.
Even in relatively good years, unemployment in Bonner County hovers above 8 percent, compared with 4.9 percent for Idaho and 4 percent nationally. Many workers in Bonner County are underemployed or working in seasonal jobs, and tourism-related jobs are not typically high paying. Per capita income in the county is two-thirds of the national average. But people want to live here: The county's population has increased by 41 percent in the past 10 years, the available workforce by more than 50 percent.
Now, ready for some good news?
The Bonner County Economic Development Corporation (BCEDC), which opened its office this spring after nearly a year of preparatory work, plans to change that economic picture. The group's aim is to change some of the other elements in the economic activity of the county. Their focus is on job retention, recruitment and expansion of existing businesses, along with reduction of seasonal fluctuations in employment.
"There's no white knight from outside," says BCEDC Executive Director Kevin Clegg. "A local effort is required to step up and make development happen."
That effort also has to be steady and persistent. A hundred contacts may yield one or two companies interested in moving. Clegg says a small business may relocate fairly quickly -- in one to two years -- but the average recruiting time for larger businesses is three to five years.
"So we're in this for the long term," he says. He also points out that a community cannot turn economic development efforts on and off and be successful.
Greg Taylor is chairman of the BCEDC's 12-member board and the owner of Taylor-Parker Motor Co. He had been involved with an economic development corporation that disbanded a few years ago, Sandpoint Unlimited. He feels BCEDC is differentiated from that one because of the intent to keep a "very narrow focus on job creation." Taylor adds, "I want to see us continue to improve, and I worry about what is happening economically throughout the nation right now. The bottom line is that if we want to improve our future we have to step up and do it ourselves."
Board members contributed $8,000 apiece for seed money toward salaries and other operating expenses. Businesses and individuals may support the organization through donations and sponsoring and contributing memberships. Clegg and administrative assistant Carrie King work out of an office in the Mount Baldy Professional Building, 1305 West Highway 2.
Clegg says the corporation is not looking for just any company. It is working to attract businesses that pay a living wage ($9 to $12 per hour) and offer benefits to their employees, businesses that will diversify the economic base, reduce the seasonality of employment and be environmentally responsible.
Manufacturers of outdoor recreational equipment are attractive possibilities, along with high-tech firms such as software developers and, in general, businesses that are not "location dependent."
Physical location matters little to companies that do a large part of their work via phone, fax, e-mail and Internet. Local manufacturers such as American Dental Hygienics, Encoder, Diedrich Coffee Roasters, Lead-Lok and Percussionaire produce specialized products and sell them all over the world.
Other local businesses are using websites, cell phones and e-mail to extend their activities and communicate with clients. Riding the dot.com wave, businesses have set up websites for promotion and taking orders -- earning them the distinction of being "clicks and mortar" enterprises. Artists, musicians and writers benefit, too, by promoting their work to larger audiences on the Web.
The natural beauty and rural character make Bonner County attractive to many people who are re-evaluating their lives and their work. And Clegg points out that the high unemployment rate indicates to a potential employer that people are available for work.
"North Idaho shines when things aren't so good in other areas of the country," Clegg says, citing the winter power crisis in heavily populated areas as an example.
In its five-year strategic plan, the BCEDC set three goals: to take the county from the highest unemployment rate of the three northern counties to the lowest; to gain 50 jobs per year; and to recruit businesses that will provide a job base at or above the state median income.
"Everyone wants to live in a place where they can find a good job, have medical coverage and feel safe about their future," Taylor said. "Why should people (who want to live here) be forced to move away from an area they have chosen to live in and love?"
By representing the county to companies that fit its criteria, BCEDC's members and sponsors hope to attract the kind of businesses that will enable residents to break out of unemployment and underemployment. The ultimate goal is for residents to enjoy a quality of working life comparable to the quality of life that Bonner County is known for.
Laurel Wagers contributed to Sandpoint's economic development as one of the "Founding Moms" who helped save the Panida Theater back in 1985.