The goals for the Idaho Department of Commerce are clear: create jobs, strengthen communities and market Idaho. The means to do so are diverse.
Department Director Don Dietrich was in Sun Valley to speak on those issues at the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau's annual economic outlook luncheon on Thursday, May 15.
Filling the Sun Valley Lodge Dining Room to hear Dietrich and Karen Ballard, the administrator for the Idaho State Tourism Department, was a healthy representation of elected officials from throughout Blaine County, as well as state Rep. Wendy Jaquet.
Dietrich, who took over as head of the Department of Commerce last month, has a resume filled with private-sector experience. He emphasized his business-oriented approach to the job and the intended benefits for Idaho's future.
"The biggest thing is to say bureaucrats are not welcome," Dietrich said. "If you've been sitting comfortably in your seat for the past 20 years, you had better strap on your seatbelt. It's absolutely critical to treat this like a business."
According to Dietrich, that means using his 56-person staff and $33 million budget, much of which ends up as grants, to expand the state's economic base through building existing businesses and attracting new ones.
"I'm confident that Idaho's job growth will outpace the national level, but we're starting from a much lower point," he said.
He explained that while the state's gross domestic product is projected to increase by 2.4 percent this year, the pipeline of new businesses, which has proved a torrent over the past few years, is beginning to slow along with the nation's economy. To combat that, his department is not only touting Idaho's virtues to business leaders across the United States, but it's also looking beyond the country's borders.
"There's a tremendous amount of interest from foreign firms," Dietrich said, citing the recent multi-billion-dollar investment by the French firm Areva to construct a large uranium enrichment plant near Idaho Falls. He added that companies from Japan and Canada are also looking at potential projects in the state.
The foreign investment, which makes up 30 percent of the businesses looking to set up in Idaho, not only will create jobs, but also represents a huge source of investment capital to provide for necessary venture capital funding, Dietrich said. This investment should, in turn, help with Idaho's exports, which hit a record $4.7 billion this year.
In order to accelerate that process, Dietrich called on Blaine County residents, many of whom are well connected to the upper echelons of the global business community, for assistance by putting those business executives in contact with him and exploring opportunities within the state.
However, Dietrich stressed that recruitment is not the only focus of his department.
Along with helping retain and expand businesses already in operation in Idaho, Dietrich said it's important to look for ways to improve both salaries and benefit packages as a way of attracting employees. He said that's vital in places such as Blaine County, where the extremely low level of unemployment, around 2 percent for 2007, indicated that employers are "scrambling to get trained employees."
In addition, Dietrich said the Department of Commerce wants to strengthen rural communities not simply by introducing new development, but by making sure that it's done intelligently and in accordance with the needs of the towns.
"We need to go to places that are set up to be destroyed by developers," Dietrich said, using Carey and Bellevue as examples of small communities that are particularly vulnerable. "They need to have ordinances in place and a growth-management plan to control development."
While diversification has been noted as a key for growth in Blaine County, the fact that the leisure and hospitality sector makes up 21 percent of jobs in the county, the most of any industry not including farm jobs, means the promotion of tourism is as important as ever.
Karen Ballard, administrator for the Idaho State Tourism Department, discussed efforts by the state to bring visitors to Idaho. They include advertising to the 11 Western states by way of magazines, trade shows and newspapers, as well as working with foreign tour operators to take advantage of new routes, such as direct flights from Paris to Salt Lake City.
"Without a doubt, you should be seeing an increase in the number of French visitors," Ballard said, adding that Sun Valley Co. has been very active in trying to provide an attractive product to overseas markets.
Ballard said area businesses and organizations can use her department as a means of promoting themselves through the state Web site, visitidaho.org.