Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Needed: Local economic summit

It's been just three months since Sustain Blaine, a private/public group, hired an Austin, Texas, company to figure out how to grow the county's economy.

In that short period of time, historic events have left the country breathless, sectors of Wall Street broke and bleeding, and small businesses hanging by a thread.

The consulting company began to study Blaine County's demographics, talked with major local businesses and government bodies and planned to unveil its recommendations some time in February.

It's going to be a long wait.

The consulting company and Sustain Blaine surely realize that their mission has changed. The valley needs not only long-term economic strategies, but strategies for short-term economic survival while the national economy realigns itself.

If that's not a job for Sustain Blaine, then local businesses and governments need to meet to chart a survival plan. That's a better strategy than to be passively victimized by the national storm.

Issued the end of October, the consultants' report on local employment made the need for a plan manifestly apparent. Jobs information from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis for 2006 is chilling when viewed with the national meltdown in mortgages and real estate.

In 2006, the BEA tallied 21,976 jobs in Blaine County. Of these, 5,744, representing 26 percent of all jobs, were in construction or real estate—the two hardest hit industries in the nation outside the financial sector. Add to that the 2,254 employed in retail trade, which is turning in troubled numbers nationally, and 7,998, or 36 percent, of local jobs may be at risk. Not to mention additional related jobs in all industries.

Each job or two represents a local family and all of its retail expenditures—the expenditures that truly sustain Blaine year round as tourism waxes and wanes. Further, each family generates taxes that support local governments.

Not all of the economic news out there is bad. For example, The New York Times reported this week that Idaho is not one of the states where high percentages of homeowners owe more on their homes than they are worth—good news for the real estate sector.

New hotels and a new airport also may help the local situation in the long run.

But the valley needs some short-term solutions. They may be as simple as getting local businesses connected with banks that can finance business in this tough climate. It may be streamlining and improving customer service—making Sun Valley easier to love for visitors who make long treks to get here.

If history is any teacher, opportunities often lie in crisis. The trick is to find them.

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