Friday, October 1, 2010

‘Just get it done’

Organizations call for coordinated economic efforts

Express Staff Writer

Jima Rice

The list of organizations dedicated to business and economics in the Wood River Valley is a daunting one.

For the outside observer, it may be nearly impossible to sort out the nuances among the missions of the Ketchum Community Development Corp., Sustain Blaine and the county-based Sun Valley Economic Development Corp., the Wood River Economic Partnership, Jigsaw and similar organizations that have cropped up in the valley over the past decade or so. All of the mission statements state the need to support small businesses; all talk about helping the valley's economy. But the leaders of these organizations say more coordination is needed to make real progress possible.

"It doesn't make sense to have six different economic development directors in our valley," said Doug Brown, executive director of Wood River Economic Partnership.

WREP's goal is to be the voice of business in the valley and is not necessarily concerned with the broader issue of economic growth, Brown said, but he does see fragmentation among the different organizations he works with.

Jima Rice, founder of the nonprofit business incubator Jigsaw, says the fragmentation she sees is dragging the valley's economy down.

"There's a lot of planning and jockeying going on," she said. "There's a huge amount of ego and a lack of appropriate knowledge."

What's causing the fragmentation? Mostly the economy, Rice and Brown agree. Rice said people got "panicky" and began grasping for answers in the wake of the downturn, and Brown attributes the disparate efforts to different factions wanting to show they are dealing with the recession.

"All of the different jurisdictions are jumping to show they're doing something," Brown said, "but they're not thinking long-term."

The long-term solution, according to Brown, is a larger effort that would coordinate the missions of the cities and other organizations.

"We don't want to dilute the activities underway, but they need to be focused," Rice said.

The economies of the cities and the county are already intertwined, said Tom Bowman, Blaine County commissioner and ex-officio board member of the Sun Valley Economic Development Corp.

"Everything is connected to everything else," he said. "There is an underlying sense of cooperation, that we're all in this together."

Still, he said, the different missions of the various local organizations are standing in the way of deeper coordination.

"With the city of Ketchum, from the beginning, they were interested in projects that would directly help the city of Ketchum," he said.

Beth Robrahn, Hailey planning director and member of Hailey's new Mayor's Economic Development Team, said local efforts are necessary to meet the needs of each city.

"Each jurisdiction needs to look at its own role in economic development," she said. "We can't have a one-size-fits-all [organization]."


Robrahn said she worked closely with Sustain Blaine and the Sun Valley Economic Development Corp. when developing Hailey's economic strategy for the downtown area, and that the mayor's team includes some members of the corporation's board.

"We try to be as coordinated as possible," Robrahn said.

Despite the best efforts of Robrahn and other organization leaders, each stressed the need for more official coordination.

"We could all put our shoulder behind the wheel together and make it happen," Bowman said, but Rice said there's not a clear focus on how this coordination might work.

"Everybody wants that," she said, "we just don't know how to get there."

The city of Ketchum has been put forth by Mayor Randy Hall as a potential leader of the valley's efforts. Brown admitted that the city's larger projects are driving growth in the region, but Rice maintained that any coordination would have to be unaffiliated with the cities to prevent conflicts of interest.

Perhaps a more viable option is the possibility of the future Sun Valley Economic Development Corp.'s executive director, who has not yet been hired, acting as what Rice called a "point person."

"What we need is somebody with deep experience in economic development," Rice said, "somebody with the credibility ... and the authority to work across all the groups."

The new executive director could certainly take on that role, Bowman said, but only if all the other organizations in the valley agree.

"One thing we don't want to do is intentionally step on anyone's toes," Bowman said. "We do that enough accidentally."

According to Brown, though, the business community is not willing to wait much longer for a cohesive approach to economic growth.

"The business community is fed up," he said. "It's time to just get it done."

Katherine Wutz:

12 years of development

Economic development plans for the Wood River Valley are hardly a new trend.

November 1998: Big and Little Wood River Action Plan, meant to assess the economic opportunities in Blaine County, is developed.

July 2006: The city of Ketchum develops the Ketchum Community Development Corp., with the mission to "improve the overall culture and viability of Ketchum."

March 2007: Jima Rice, business consultant, forms the Wood River Economic Partnership, an organization dedicated to being a united voice for business in Blaine County.

June 2007: Sustain Blaine is founded to develop a unified economic strategy for the county.

September 2007: Sustain Blaine receives funding for a study to determine the economic needs and issues facing the county.

November 2007: Rice leaves WREP, founds Jigsaw, a nonprofit business development organization.

January 2010: Sustain Blaine forms the Sun Valley Economic Development Corp. to carry out the strategy outlined in the previously commissioned study.

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