If you could go back 18 years, Coeur d’Alene and Kootenai County would be much different.
Sure, the beautiful lakes and The Coeur d’Alene Resort would still be there. But the vitality wouldn’t. Residents were leaving the area as fast they were moving in, forced to flee by a depressed economy. The timber and mining industries were on life support. The construction industry was struggling. Good deals on houses and rental property were easy to find.
At the time, few could imagine the dramatic growth decades ahead in the Kootenai County job market, which ranked fourth in the nation last year, percentage wise, at a robust 6.8 percent. Some of the job growth can be credited to the “discovery” of North Idaho. It would have happened even if Kootenai County hadn’t prepared for it. But a good part of the credit can be placed at the feet of visionaries, like resort owner Duane Hagadone, Tom Richards and other captains of local commerce at the time, who saw a need to diversify the regional economy and launched the Jobs Plus effort with $1 million in private donations.
They deserve credit for setting the stage for future economic vitality by stepping out in faith during a depressed time.
Seven companies donated $60,000 apiece to launch the major fund-raising effort at the former Holiday Inn (now the Coeur d’Alene Inn) on March 10, 1987, including the Hagadone Corp., Coeur d’Alene Mines and Hecla Mining Co.
“It’ll take three to four years to show some results,” said Dennis Wheeler of Coeur d’Alene Mines at the time. “Once it starts, though, we will see it on an ongoing basis.”
Wheeler was right.
From 1987 through 2003, Jobs Plus attracted 76 companies, 3,812 net jobs and a capital investment of $407 million to Kootenai County, according to organization President Steve Griffitts. Last year, the numbers picked up even more as Jobs Plus helped attract 1,122 of about 3,100 new county jobs – or 36 percent of the total. The construction industry added about one-fourth of the total while racing to keep pace with demand for homes from the influx of out-of-staters lured to Kootenai County by national media coverage, tourism promotion, and word of mouth from friends and relatives.
Randy Barcus, chief economist for the Avista Corp., has a response to those who pooh-pooh the quality of jobs being created: “So many people don’t understand that in call centers, there are supervisors and operations managers. Every single one of those workers needs a physician. If they’ve got kids in school, they need a teacher. … If the new jobs are bringing more money into the community than they’re sending out, that’s what economic growth is all about.”
Significantly, the job competition boosted Kootenai County wages 5.2 percent last year to an annual average of $27,378.
With or without Jobs Plus, construction workers in Kootenai County would have been busy last year and this one. Now, however, the county’s economy doesn’t depend on the cyclical industry or tourism solely to sustain vitality.
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