Friday, October 24, 2008

Consultant: Blaine Co. losing workers

Consultant presents first step in countywide economic plan

Express Staff Writer

Alan Cox, project director for TIP Strategies, presents a progress report on Sustain Blaine, an initiative to create an economic strategy for Blaine County. After looking at demographics and other economic indicators, as well as compiling community input, the goal is to devise actions that will help the local economy.

As the Discovery Phase of the Sustain Blaine economic strategy comes to an end, it was once again emphasized to city officials and members of the public that the initiative is aimed at action and not intended to sit on a shelf.

Blaine County Administrator Mike McNees, representing the Sustain Blaine steering committee, explained the diverse support for the study at the first of two workshops, held Wednesday.

"More than any other organization, Sustain Blaine represents the broadest cross-section of interest in the entire valley," McNees said. "It includes anyone who has questions about our long-term economic viability."

That diversity was evidenced by the audience assembled at the Wood River Community YMCA, which included city officials from Sun Valley and Ketchum, as well as Neil Bradshaw and Tom Unger from the Ketchum Community Development Corp. and a number of business owners.

McNees introduced Alan Cox and Meredith Whitten from the Austin, Texas, economic development consulting firm TIP Strategies, which was chosen this summer to perform the research and create a final strategy.

Cox, the project director, made a number of visits to the Wood River Valley to meet with city representatives, business owners and organizations like the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau.

In addition, he compiled data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis to illustrate the valley's economic situation.

Cox said that based on existing demographic trends, the percentage of Blaine County residents between the ages of 20 and 34 is projected to be 14 percent in 2030, falling from 38 percent in 1980. That translates into a lack of employees needed to help spur economic growth.

In 2006, the top two industries in terms of numbers of employees were construction, accommodations and food service. Along with real estate, the proportion of the workforce in these industries was well above the national average. The slowdown in the housing market and potential impacts on tourism from a worsening economy could impact much of the county's workforce.

That situation is partially created and exacerbated by the cost of housing, exemplified by the fact that the average value of single-family homes at the time of construction is about $950,000.

As well, of the approximately 14,000 homes in the county, fewer than 9,000 have permanent residents.

Cox attributed the high cost of housing to recent increases in migration from Blaine County to areas near Shoshone and Boise.

However, that exodus is countered by an ongoing influx of new transplants from out of state.

"This is a small town comprised of people from big cities," Cox said.

Cox said that one of the challenges in the development of the local economy would be to further take advantage of the natural beauty and associated amenities of the area to maintain and increase the number of highly educated residents.

With this research in place, Cox said the next step will be to create an overarching vision for the county's economic development. That includes looking at whether to remain a tourist-based economy or to pursue diversification.

To help with this process, a community workshop will be held on Nov. 18, for which McNees asked that members of the public bring ideas on actions needed to create a sustainable economy in the valley.

"Sustain Blaine is important in that it brings members of the community into the same room to work through these issues," Ketchum CDC Chairman Bradshaw said. "We might not find the perfect solution for everyone, but it's critical that everyone gets to be part of the process."

Anyone interested in reading the TIP Strategies presentation can find it on the Blaine County Web site under the link for economic development.

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