The need for innovative approaches to economic development makes for strange bedfellows in Boundary County.
First, there’s county assessor Stephen Fendos. Then there are two of Bonners Ferry’s largest businesses. Sandwiched in between are the factions that brought these former adversaries together - a school district starving for funds and a community where jobs are at a premium.
Tuck them all together and you have the Boundary County Economic Development Committee.
One of the businesses - Crown Pacific Corp. - only recently settled a multimillion-dollar property tax dispute with the assessor.
“Although we’ve just gone through a significant lawsuit, I met with Crown Pacific and they said, ‘We want to be part of your committee,”’ Fendos said.
The Kootenai Indian Tribe has also expressed interest, despite its protests when Fendos attached a $1 million-a-year value to gaming machines at the Kootenai River Inn three years ago. Because the machines are not owned by the tribe, the assessor was able to add them to his tax rolls.
“Here again, I challenged a business with the law and yet they are at our economic development table,” the assessor said.
Rounding out the committee are employers, state and local government officials and school district representatives in Boundary County.
“And don’t forget the community,” said Mary Peterson, a broker at Re/Max Selkirk Mountain Realty, who co-chairs the committee. “Without them, we can’t proceed.”
The committee has a 10-page wish list that is being narrowed down to a brief set of assignments. Topping the list are jobs and schools - two things Peterson said are inextricably linked.
“This is a continuing process; an effort to decrease unemployment in Boundary County,” she said, adding that the county has one of the highest unemployment levels in the state. “Without good schools, that process is going to run into a brick wall.”
For business people considering Bonners Ferry for relocation, the first question asked is: What are your schools like?, said Sharon Wiseman, principal at Boundary County Jr. High School and Boundary County Alternative School.
Wiseman and other district officials have chosen involvement in the economic development committee over trying to run another bond levy past already strapped voters.
“The average income up here is $13,000 or $14,000 - that’s poverty level,” Wiseman said. “You can’t fault the people. They’re just trying to survive. My feeling is that if we can help with economic development, our schools are going to benefit.”
The business community has responded with creative measures for raising money.
Peterson is gathering commitments from area contractors and business people to construct a home on a donation basis. The home would be raffled off with proceeds set aside to improve local school buildings, most of which date to the 1950s.
“The reality is that there is a need for schools and a lack of funds for them,” Peterson said. “When you have a combination of need and lack, you have to be innovative.”
Boundary County is using its neighbor to the south as a model of what to avoid. In Bonner County, members of the business and professional community have called for the school district to get its financial and educational houses in order, arguing that poor performance and a lack of leadership are barriers to economic development.
Wiseman thinks business has a right to demand that kind of accountability from people who run the schools.
“We have to depend on each other,” she said. “This is an interdependent society. In Bonner County, the community has simply taken the school district to task.”
“There are a lot of problems there,” Peterson said. “We don’t want to end up with the same problems.”
Panhandle State Bank President Curt Hecker has been at the forefront of the initiative to improve schools in Bonner County.
“It’s part of promoting community development, not just economic development,” said Hecker, whose Sandpoint-based bank also has a branch in Bonners Ferry.
The bank president said he was pleased to learn that Boundary County was combining business with education.
The Boundary County Economic Development Committee first formed in 1989 but has been dormant for several years, according to Fendos.
“Mary and I decided it’s time for it to come alive. We’ve had an awful lot of negative things said about us with the Weaver thing and the Horiuchi case,” he said, referring to recent court action stemming from the 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge involving white separatist Randy Weaver. Local prosecutors are still trying to pin manslaughter charges on federal agent Lon Horiuchi for fatally shooting Weaver’s wife, Vicki.
“But this is a good community, and it’s my belief that it’s our turn to step up and do something for it,” he said.
Fendos retired early from the U.S. Air Force after 20 years as an industrial engineer, then spent several years as a business consultant before his successful run for elected office five years ago. He now volunteers his time as a small-business counselor for the Service Corps of Retired Executives.
The county assessor’s interest in economic development became keen when he started fielding complaints from taxpayers about “taxes, business failures and bankruptcies.”
“In this office, I could run people out of business,” Fendos said. “That doesn’t make sense. I want to show them what I’ve learned that can help them stay in business and thrive.”
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