Friday, October 10, 2014

Perseverance, come hell or high water

Third annual Economic Summit focuses on resiliency

Express Staff Writer

Greensburg, Kan. Mayor Bob Dixson takes the stand at the third annual Economic Summit at Sun Valley Resort. Photo by Roland Lane

    The third annual Economic Summit was hosted by the Sun Valley Economic Development group Wednesday, Oct. 8, at Sun Valley Resort’s Limelight Room. Community leaders from a wide variety of sectors spoke about challenges and solutions to the Wood River Valley’s unique economic circumstances. Speakers included Aimée Christensen, Rick LeFaivre, Angenie McCleary, Jim Keating, Kristin Poole and Mike Fitzpatrick. Keynote Speaker Bob Dixson spoke about opportunity in the face of extreme environmental catastrophe—he’s the mayor of Greensburg, Kan., a town that was all but destroyed in a 2007 tornado. All panels are tied into an annual theme: this year’s was resiliency.

In 2007, a tornado decimated 95 percent of the buildings in Greensburg, Kan.—and the town bounced back with a vengeance.
“We were all homeless,” Mayor Bob Dixson said, and all the residents had left were their relationships with each other.
    The town resolved to rebuild “green”—all city buildings were constructed within LEED platinum specifications and wind turbines were installed. Greensburg is now powered by 100 percent renewable energy. Dixson told the 2014 Economic Summit audience Wednesday that people rebuilt the city as green, but only to what they could afford. Their “living laboratory” was both privately and publically funded. But hometown pride and an insistence on quality of life, Dixson said, was the lifeblood behind the rebuild.
    Greensburg citizens had to decide if they would be “humbly grateful” or “grumbly hateful,” Dixson said, about the opportunity the tornado presented to them.
    Progressive rebuilding doesn’t eliminate future tornado risk; there is no foolproof architectural design that will keep Greensburg’s structures on the map, he said.
    “We’re not building back to survive another tornado,” Dixson said.
    The projects can help minimize loss of life and property damage, yes, but the risk of living in an environmentally volatile region remains.
    Living in the Wood River Valley presents a different, but equal risk. For a remote community heavily dependent on tourism, the loss of business during a peak month has extreme fiscal repercussions. The 2013 Beaver Creek Fire came with a $41 million dollar price tag, and that doesn’t include real estate losses, sales transactions and secondary effects, said Harry Griffith, executive director of the nonprofit Sun Valley Economic Development group.
Optimism for businesses
    Like in Greensburg, the Wood River Valley residents generally take a proactive interest in their community. Breakfast keynote speaker Mary Mitsos, executive vice president of the National Forest Foundation, said the 240 registered summit participants showed sheer dedication in numbers. She worked on restoring the Angeles National Forest in 2009 following the Station Fire, the largest in Los Angeles County history, with almost 252 square miles of forest burned. Getting the community involved in recovery was difficult, Mitsos said. She said if the number of people at Wednesday’s summit represented the same cross-section of Los Angeles’ participation during the 2009 Station Fire, the Rose Bowl Stadium would be packed—tens of thousands of people.
    The first half of 2014 showed a decline in sales numbers throughout Wood River Valley municipalities, save for Hailey’s upswing. Griffith said most of the decline came from first quarter snow woes and a resulting lack of visitors. Second-quarter numbers show an improvement and Griffith says the third quarter is slated to continue that trend.
    “Hopefully we can reverse our current status versus last year,” he said.
    Using keypad polling, Griffith asked audience members to rate the local economy’s recovery and some 64 percent said 2014 business activity was up from the previous year.
    The Sun Valley Economic Development group has a few solutions for injecting money and participation into our weather-dependent economy. Sun Valley can position itself as a “go-to” business relocation spot, Griffith said. The group plans to promote business that will inject an additional $100 million into the $1 billion dollar local economy over the next decade as well.
Keeping the valley viable
    With the departure of Scott Sports and the possible termination of Smith Optics operations in Ketchum, the fact that larger businesses might find the valley too isolated and small for a feasible business headquarters doesn’t have to be a nail in the cities’ economic coffin, panelists said.
    Rick LeFaivre, a computer scientist and venture capitalist, said maybe Sun Valley should reinvent itself as a great place to start companies but not necessarily remain home base forever. That’s what the new Ketchum Innovation Center and its incubation program hope to jumpstart. LeFaivre is on the KIC board and believes that by “waving the Sun Valley flag” the valley can attract up-and-coming entrepreneurs. This community encourages innovation, he said.  
    As Dixson said, sustainable innovation can also be financial incentive. Aimée Christensen of Christensen Global Initiatives and the Ketchum Energy Advisory Council said alternative energy like solar power and green insulation practices are at an all-time low, pricewise. With increasing gas and power prices statewide, citizens should look toward renewable energy sources for both economic and environmental reasons.
    Regarding Idaho Power Co.’s proposed redundant power line traveling from the Hailey substation into Ketchum, Christensen said, the majority of power failures came from the feeder lines south of the valley and wouldn’t be alleviated with another Hailey-Ketchum line.
    Christensen said solar is the ultimate “do-it-yourself” project, and to show the community how easy it can be, the city of Ketchum and the Ketchum Energy Advisory Committee are spearheading a “solar demonstration project” on a city building. This way, she said, the advisory committee can instruct residents in the funding, monthly costs and implementation of solar specifically in the Wood River Valley. There are a bevy of grants available to help with up-front costs for alternative energy and users will quickly see returns, Christensen said.
    “Risks are our opportunities,” she said.
    The project is scheduled to go before the City Council this fall.
Tax reimbursement program
    Call this the year of up-and-comers: Department of Commerce representative Chrissy Bowers, chief economic development officer, talked to summit participants about the new Tax Reimbursement Incentive. Beginning July 1 of this year, Idaho entrepreneurs could see 30 percent tax returns on income, payroll and sales taxes for up to 15 years, should they start a new business or decide to significantly expand an existing business.
    To qualify for the incentive, Bowers said, companies must create 20 new jobs in a rural part of the state or 50 in an urban center, among other stipulations.
    Next year’s summit is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015.

Summit highlights by the numbers

  • Education: 40-50 percent of Blaine County teachers and administrators are set to retire in the next few years.
  • Spirituality: 17 percent of Blaine County residents self-identify as churchgoers; the national average is 45 to 50 percent.
  • Recreation/Environment: 1) The 2013 Beaver Creek Fire burned 100,000-plus acres of land, mostly on the Sawtooth National Forest. 2) 2,000 hours were spent restoring area trails post-fire this summer and the same planned for next summer. 3) December 2013 was down 15 percent in snowfall from the previous year. 4) The Forest Service targets approximately 3 million acres a year in reducing fire hazards. 5) There were 8,000 visits to Lamb’s Gulch Trail in Hailey annually before it was destroyed by fire. 6) 45 miles of new trails are planned at Galena Lodge.
  • Water usage: 1) The Elkhorn Golf Course is using 85 percent less domestic water following the gray water irrigation program. 2) Sun Valley Co. could be using gray water for snowmaking on Dollar Mountain by next season.
  • Money: 1) New Idaho businesses can take advantage of a new tax reimbursement bill that gives up to 30 percent returns on taxes, for qualifying companies. 2) 3,800 new jobs in Idaho since July 1. 3) 24 new applications for the tax-incentive program in the system since July 1. 4) 2 local businesses applying for new incentive now.
  • Energy: 1) 14 percent increase in electricity costs since June 2013—a $20,000 annual impact to the city of Ketchum alone. 2) As of Oct. 1, Intermountain Gas Co. raised natural gas prices by 2.64 percent. 3) $30 million leaves the valley annually for electricity costs—and $50 million in gas costs. 4) $25,000 budget for Ketchum Energy Advisory Council’s proposed Solar Demonstration Project. 5) The Sun Valley Lodge had 762,851 pounds of recycling in 2013 and 2014 is “on pace to exceed that.” 6) There are 47 new snowmaking guns on Baldy, which make twice as much snow with 90 percent less energy. 7) New tunnel washer at the resort laundry facilities reduces water usage by 80 percent.
  • Visitors: 1) Over 55 percent of Sun Valley Resort guests are male.  2) Californian visitors represent 20 percent of all resort attendees. 3) The average income of a resort visitor is over $170,000 annually. 4) Ski magazine ranked Sun Valley the No. 3 ski resort in the country. 5) 96 percent of full-time residents would recommend the area to tourists. 6) 70 percent of people who access the Sun Valley Co. website do so on their mobile phones.
  • Fly Sun Valley: 1) 2 new destinations added to Friedman Memorial Airport: San Francisco and Denver. 2) 29 percent more enplanements year to date at the Friedman Memorial Airport. 3) 71 percent load factor on planes from Jan.-Sept.  4) $80 million indirect spending from air travel projected for 2014.
  • Housing: 1) Number of people on waiting list for Community Homes: 100-plus. 2) Average cost of a market-rate home in the Wood River Valley circa 2014: $615,606. 3) Cost of an entry-level, Blaine County Housing Authority Home: $153,170.
  • Audience survey: 1) 240 people registered for the summit. 2) 26 percent would spend up to $25 per month on improving community resilience. 3) 69 percent took away 2-3 actions from the summit for implementation. 4) 64 percent said 2014 business activity was up from the previous year. 5) 65 percent predict a moderately better business climate in coming years. 6) 52 percent said Wood River Valley is moderately to very resilient.

(Statistics courtesy of Kristin Poole, Harry Griffith, Jim Keating, Mike Fitzpatrick, Chrissy Bowers, Kurt Nelson, Aimee Christensen, Carol Waller and David Patrie.)

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