In 2004 and 2005, Kootenai County ranked among the top five U.S. metro areas for best performance in job growth. It’s a much different story today, with nearly 11 percent of North Idaho’s labor force unemployed and looking for work. But hard times are no stranger to the Idaho Panhandle, says Kathryn Tacke, a state labor economist. She draws hope from the past resilience of local communities to economic hardship.
Q.Provide some historical perspective.
A.I certainly don’t want to make light of what people are suffering, but we’ve been through much worse. If we look back to the 1980s, our communities were suffering terribly and they managed to endure.
Q.How bad was it?
A.Unemployment rates throughout North Idaho’s five northern counties rose to 19.4 percent in October 1982. Benewah County’s unemployment rate was 27.8 percent, which is horrible, but it looked pretty good next to 38.3 percent in Shoshone County.
Q.What caused those job losses?
A.The 1980s was a particularly bad time for the timber industry. It was also very hard on silver mining. That’s when the Silver Valley lost the Bunker Hill Smelter and several major mines closed. We didn’t have nearly the economic diversification that we do today. Tourism wasn’t much of a player. … The 1980s recession produced some of the best efforts to diversify our economy. That’s one reason our unemployment rate is not back in that 19 percent range.
Q.How is this recession different from past ones?
A.The problems started in the housing market, which really affected our region. Often, the U.S. housing market isn’t affected until the national economy goes down for other reasons. Once that happens, the lumber industry suffers. This time, the lumber market was suffering before the national recession began.
Q.How many people work in the timber industry?
A.People act like it’s a dying industry. It’s not. But it’s always been a cyclical industry, and right now the cyclical pressures are enormous. We have about 1,500 jobs in wood product manufacturing in the Idaho Panhandle – about half of where we were before the U.S. housing market collapsed. Logging jobs are down from about 800 to 440.
Q.Which North Idaho community has been hardest hit by the current downturn?
A.Priest River. We don’t have unemployment rates for individual communities, but we know that the rate must be over 20 percent.
Q.Many national authorities say the worst of the recession is behind us. Do you see any positive signs locally?
A.Some retailers saw more activity in the last month, and some manufacturers are becoming hopeful about expanding sales. However, it’s very likely that the housing market will not recover as the nation begins its economic recovery. As a result, the lumber industry will suffer for some time to come.