Friday, April 13, 2007

County needs change in direction, citizens say

Workshop discusses creation of regional economic strategy

Express Staff Writer

A diverse group of interests met at the Hailey Community Campus on Wednesday night to discuss how to convince elected officials in Blaine County that creating a regional economic strategy for the county is not only prudent, but necessary.

During the meeting, something unique and refreshing took place.

Gathered under one roof were nearly 100 people advocating for the real estate profession and affordable housing, development and open space, effective transportation and wildlife.

Perhaps most significant of all, everyone spoke in civil tones, no arguments broke out and every person was focused on the same goal.

Starting the meeting off with a conciliatory tone was Len Harlig, a former county commissioner and the facilitator for the workshop.

"Let's try to be respectful of each other," Harlig said.

Overall, the topic of regional economic sustainability and all of its many components was the general theme for the night's workshop.

The meeting was organized by a variety of local business owners and community activists living in Blaine County, including Harlig, George Kirk, Linda Haavik, Marty Flannes and John Sofro.

The workshop is the fourth such meeting to be held and is the result of a recommendation by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) that Blaine County undertake a comprehensive regional planning effort through the partnership of public and private entities, Sofro said last week.

The Urban Land Institute is a nonprofit research and education organization based in Washington, D.C., focused on the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities. The institute was hired by the developers of Spring Creek, a proposed new town south of the Timmerman Hill junction in southern Blaine County, to study the feasibility of the proposed city.

As part of the study, the ULI recommended that Blaine County as a whole look at issues related to economic sustainability, affordable housing, transportation and open space in the region, Sofro said.

Ultimately, the goal of the participants involved in the effort is to present their complete regional economic strategy to elected officials from Blaine County and the five municipalities, who at the moment are in the process of forming what is to be called the Blaine Regional Leadership Council (BRLC). The body would be made up of elected officials from the various municipalities and the county.

The BRLC's first meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 20, Harlig said.

In a way, the goal of the citizens' group is to help the Blaine Regional Leadership Council with some of the heaving lifting needed to create a regional economic strategy for the county, Harlig said.

However, the intent is not to become an alternative to the BRLC, rather to offer them assistance, he said.

Despite the generally harmonious nature of the night's meeting, there was something of a determined edge to the workshop when the topic of whether elected officials would listen to the recommendations and advice of the citizens' group.

Elected officials throughout the county need to know that the status quo—one which has seen the closure of many Wood River Valley businesses and the departure of families who can't afford to live in the valley—isn't good enough, Harlig said.

"We need to have changes," he said.

The most significant development to come out of the meeting was a resounding yes to the question of whether the county does need to pursue regional planning.

As part of the effort, a request for proposals (RFP) is being developed with the intention of hiring an outside firm to conduct a regional economic study for Blaine County. The findings of the study, which organizers hope will be funded with a public-private partnership, will be presented to county leaders.

At least one group, the Sawtooth Board of Realtors, has said it will help fund the study. Overseeing the entire effort will be a steering committee made up of various interests in the county.

Items the firm selected to complete the study might look at include the current state of the regional economy and its trends over the past 10 years, employment, wages and household composition figures, and retail growth and sales. The study would also include a comparative analysis of the Blaine County region contrasted against other Western communities.

The study wouldn't be limited to just the regional economy in its strictest sense, but would include an analysis of the importance of the area's environmental and social components. An exact timeline for when the study might take place has not been released yet.

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