Friday, December 23, 2011

Otter gets a dose of Sun Valley

Governor discusses economy, public services and wolves with locals

Express Staff Writer

Gov. Butch Otter, left, and state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, center, share a light moment during the stateís Capital for a Day event at the Sun Valley Inn on Wednesday. Otter brought more than a dozen state agency heads for a daylong discussion of local items of concern and to celebrate Sun Valley Resortís 75th anniversary. Photo by Roland Lane

Gov. Butch Otter and a group of more than a dozen state agency heads got a crash course in Sun Valley on Wednesday during the group's Capital for a Day program celebrating the resort's 75th anniversary at the Sun Valley Inn.

Local organization leaders, including elected officials and economic development groups, gave presentations to the governor, both thanking the state for past financial support and asking the governor to continue or even increase funding for certain causes.

Economic development

The topic of economic development took the main role in the tightly scheduled morning agenda. While neither Otter nor his state agency heads commented, they were bombarded with information about the valley's marketing and economic development efforts.

Jake Peters, president of the Ketchum-Sun Valley Marketing Alliance board, thanked the governor for his help in obtaining a visa for new executive director Arlene Schieven, who arrived several months ago from Whistler, B.C.

Schieven has helped the Marketing Alliance increase awareness of Sun Valley, he said, but it still faces major challenges.

"Our problem isn't that we have a problem with Sun Valley," he said. "It's that people don't know about it."

Schieven told the governor that she accepted the job because she "likes a challenge," and that awareness has been a real problem, even in other ski resorts.

"When I told people I was coming to Sun Valley, they said, 'Right, in Colorado,'" she said, adding that other guesses included Utah and Nevada. "Not once did Idaho come up."

The problem is not just awareness, she said, but also access to Sun Valley. She said minimum revenue guarantees that keep airlines coming to Sun Valley during the high seasons also keep the resort from being able to spend more on marketing to bring people here. Schieven said limited air access also keeps "slack" or shoulder seasons between winter and summer slower than in other places.

Gary Marks, Ketchum city administrator and Urban Renewal Agency executive director, emphasized that economic conditions in Ketchum are felt statewide.

The city has approved development projects, including several hotels, with an estimated value of $2 billion. Marks said that the sales tax from construction of the projects alone could bring $22 million in revenue to the state, and would likely continue to generate roughly $10 million in additional revenue to the state annually.

"When we talk about economic development, it has an impact on the state," he said. "Ten million is not 'chump change' in anyone's book."


Health and wellness concerns

But an even bigger concern, according to County Commissioner Angenie McCleary, is that Blaine County has lost state funding for community health programs.

"Around the state of Idaho, people forget," she said. "They don't realize that there are troubles here, and that there are real issues and real problems."

McCleary told the governor and state agency heads that the county has seen significant increases in indigent medical costs and psychiatric holds since the state cut Medicaid funding and closed the Department of Health and Welfare office in Bellevue last year.

Last year, McCleary said, the county spent $69,000 on indigent mental health costs. That number has since skyrocketed to $235,000 so far this year.

"That is a significant burden on our county resources," she said. "We really need state agencies to be strong and well-funded, [and] we really need Blaine County to have Health and Welfare services locally."

Otter did not comment on potential funding for Health and Welfare.

What about wolves?

But Otter did jump into the fray when the discussion turned to wolf management.

Commissioner Larry Schoen stood before the governor and suggested that the state could take a cue from the county's Wood River Wolf Project, a program dedicated to reducing conflicts between wolves and livestock through nonlethal deterrents.

"I think [this program] is something that can be broadened," he said. "It would be useful to develop a program that can educate ranchers on predator deterrents."

Schoen suggested that the program could show ranchers how to use range riders, alarms and electric fences while reducing the need for state kill orders on wolves.

"A lot of people that I come in contact with, they are still angry about wolf reintroduction," he said. "You don't have to be a wolf lover or a wolf hater to believe that if you stop the predation in the first place, you reduce the economic losses and reduce the lethal control actions."

But wolves affect more than just livestock producers, Otter said, and wolves are still harming Idaho's economy.

"I congratulate you on that effort," he said, "[But] the economic impact on guides and outfitters has been tremendous. Those that are still in business are struggling."

That impact is felt most strongly in the Lolo Wolf Management Zone, Otter said, where elk populations have dropped from an all-time high of 16,000 to the most recent count of 2,000.

"The success of an elk hunt is what sells the next year's hunt," he said.

Otter concluded the open discussion session slightly early to ride one of the newest Mountain Rides buses, bought partly with state funds. The governor thanked the crowd for attending before catching the bus to a grand reopening ceremony at the Knob Hill Inn in Ketchum, which has been recently renovated.

"I just want you to know how much I appreciate your hospitality and your involvement," he said.

Katherine Wutz:

President Otter?

Gov. Butch Otter announced last week at an event in northern Idaho that he intends to run for a third gubernatorial term in 2014. But one participant at Wednesday's discussion in Sun Valley had another office in mind for Otter—president of the United States. Otter laughed off the suggestion, saying he was flattered but would not run. "Having spent six years in Congress, that's all the time I want to spend [in Washington, D.C.]," he said. "This is the best job I have ever had. I'm going to stay right here in Idaho." Otter was elected governor in 2006 and beat Democrat Keith Allred for a second term in 2010.

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