BONNERS FERRY — With growth from Kootenai and Bonner counties spilling north, Boundary County officials are struggling to balance the economic aspirations of their constituents against concerns newcomers will bring with them too much change.
And they are coming.
Housing starts doubled last year, and are up about 25 percent so far this year over last. Jobs had been increasing steadily the last few years until CEDU Education Services this spring closed its three schools in the county, putting about 300 employees out of work. At least some of those jobs will return under new owner Universal Health Services Inc., which has already begun hiring.
Per capita income has also increased, although the $18,542 measured in 2003 was far below the average $25,476 for all of Idaho. Income from transfer payments like Social Security represents almost one-quarter of the county’s total, a share almost 50 percent higher than that for the state.
Darrell Kirby says county residents are well aware they are not doing as well as their neighbors to the south. As mayor of Bonners Ferry and chairman of the Boundary Economic Development Council, Kirby says the income spread has become more of an irritant because immigrants to the area will pay more for a home.
Kirby, who is also one of the area’s largest insurance and real estate brokers, says he understands the community’s ambivalence towards growth.
“If we’re too well-discovered, we’ll lose the reason we were discovered,” he says, notably the area’s rural lifestyle and environmental qualities. Many other Idaho communities share that dilemma, he adds.
Kirby says natives know they have to do better, but how?
Many still pin their hopes on a restart of the former Louisiana-Pacific sawmill that sprawls over 60 acres adjacent to downtown Bonners Ferry. The plant once employed 140. But even if the mill cannot be restarted, and Kirby is not optimistic given federal timber harvest restrictions, the site still has a wealth of infrastructure; water, sewer, power, natural gas and, perhaps most impressively, access to both Union Pacific and BNSF Railway rail lines.
“It’s an amazing location for the right customers,” Kirby says.
He says small-scale development is more likely, but additional land for commercial or industrial development is scarce. The county is trying to figure out ways to streamline the rezoning process.
Lack of state-of-the-art telecommunications is also a drawback. High-speed Internet connectivity is possible only within a small area. Cellular telephone coverage is spotty.
There are success stories. Caribou Creek Log Homes ships its handcrafted homes as far away as New Zealand. TrussTek has also thrived as a result of the Inland Northwest housing boom, and adjacent land was recently rezoned to allow expansion. Tourism, retail, health care and manufacturing have each added between 20 and 40 jobs in the last year. Tree nurseries are popping up in several areas. Still, one-third of all jobs in the county are with the local, state or federal governments.
Development efforts also benefit from the combined support of the county, the cities of Bonners Ferry and Moyie Springs, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho — owner of the Kootenai River Inn, and the Boundary County School District 101, which fund the EDC. Robin Ponsness is the director.
Ponsness, like Kirby, says the council must develop an economic strategy that will generate jobs that fit local skill sets. To provide more employee education, she says, the council is working with North Idaho College to get a Workforce Training Center operating sometime early next year. The council is asking employers what skills would best help their business.
Ponsness works with the Panhandle Area Council and Inland Northwest Economic Alliance to develop leads on companies possibly considering relocation. Recruitment is tough given the area’s remoteness, land use constraints and shortage of skilled workers.
“They really have to want to be here,” she says.
Tactical Innovations Inc., a small manufacturer and distributor of gun accessories that moved to Bonners Ferry from Baltimore about a year ago, is the kind of company that fits the area, she adds.
Kirby predicts the community will eventually find the desired balance between job growth and the preservation of the local lifestyle and environment. It just may take some more squabbling.
“Over time, that desire for the children to do better will win out,” Kirby says. “The community understands that, to survive, growth is necessary.”
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