Four local business owners on a panel discussing the challenges of operating a business in Blaine County agreed on two things during the Sustain Blaine Economic Summit on Wednesday: first, that Blaine County is a wonderful place to live, and second, that businesses need better air service to Friedman Memorial Airport.
The panel was composed of developer Jack Bariteau, Marketron CEO Walt Denakas, Zions Bank representative Bryan Furlong and restaurateur Rob Cronin, owner of Zou 75 in Hailey and a member of Sun Valley Brokers.
Bariteau opened his part of the panel by saying that he’s been working extensively with Sustain Blaine to help it and Fly Sun Valley Alliance put a measure on the November ballot that would allow cities to collect a 1 percent local-option tax for developing air service.
He said he’s been looking for investors for at least one major hotel project, and that he’s consistently been turned down, in part due to the area’s lack of access.
“The No. 1 thing I hear as I go out into the world today is, ‘What are you going to do about your airport?’” he said. “[The tax] is the most important issue that has ever been on a collective ballot in this county.”
Cronin said that he, too, supports the new tax “100 percent.”
“I’m ready to put my money where my mouth is,” he said.
Though he said he has a local customer base, shoulder seasons harm his business, and he makes 90 percent of his money over 60 percent of the year.
“Forty percent of the time, [my restaurant] is empty,” he said.
Those businesses that mostly have local clientele should also support the tax, he said.
“Anyone who says they have local clientele and don’t need the LOT, where do you think your clientele make their money?” he said.
As the owner of a restaurant and member of a real estate firm, Cronin runs businesses that will not be subject to the tax—though Sun Valley Brokers is participating in the Realtors to Air program, in which real estate agents contribute 1 percent of gross commissions to minimum revenue guarantees for airlines.
Furlong and Denakas both focused more on quality of life in the valley and how people can stay here, though Denakas added that improved air service would help his business by allowing salespeople and clients to more easily reach each other.
“Getting people to visit us and getting the people who work here to their customers is a major issue,” he said.
However, he said the challenges are not worth leaving for, as the workforce here is excellent.
“The people that we have hired in the past from here are bright, energetic and gung-ho, and they are ready to go places,” he said, adding that he recently promoted a 24-year-old Wood River Valley native to be in charge of Marketron’s worldwide marketing.
Luckily for Denakas’ workforce, Furlong said Zions Bank is lending again—though the rules are more stringent this time around. He said banks want to loan money for condos and townhouses as well as to small businesses, but that businesses should have a comprehensive plan together before asking for financing.
“It’s not easy to do business here, but the people doing business here are a hardy, strong group of people,” he said. “We think long term—this community is going to continue to grow.”
Overall, numbers for Blaine County’s economy seemed positive—mostly—according to data presented by Sustain Blaine Executive Director Harry Griffith at the beginning of the summit.
All data was either from 2011 or year-to-date 2012. Griffith said that while overall county earnings were down, sales were up and employment, real estate and tourism-related revenue had ceased to decline.
Sales went up $38 million in 2011 over 2010, Griffith said, even though sales of lodging and food and drink remained nearly flat. Apparel and accessory sales declined between 2010 and 2011, but Griffith said the trend is “generally positive.”
“The key message is that Main Street retail is actually an interesting dimension [of the county’s economy],” he said. “Some of these businesses are struggling, but some have improved.”
Job loss for the county has stabilized, and Griffith said unemployment has declined since the beginning of 2012.
“The trend looks rather positive,” he said. “We are actually starting to see some job creation.”
Though Griffith said the real estate “boom years” were over, he added that the $900 million real estate bubble between 2003 and 2008 was unsustainable and the best the county can hope for is a steady state of both building and real estate sales.
“That’s the new reality,” he said.
Kate Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org