Mar
18
2016

Pocatello, Chubbuck enjoy economic lift

By Michael H. O’Donnell modonnell@journalnet.com

Idaho State Journal

image14POCATELLO — The economic doldrums of the Great Recession are in the rear view mirror for residents of Pocatello and Chubbuck, according to local economic development experts Arlen Wittrock and John Regetz.

Wittrock, chairman of the Idaho Economic Advisory Council, and Regetz, executive director of the Bannock Development Corp., presented a picture of a quickly recovering local economy to members of the Pocatello Rotary Thursday.

The two men used a slideshow to show job growth and economic advancements since 2012, and the picture is bright.

“Things are looking up, but I believe in continuous improvement,” Wittrock said.

The entire state has seen improvement with Idaho ranked No. 1 in the nation last year for the largest percentage gain in private sector employment, according to Wittrock.

As a member of the state’s Economic Advisory Council, Wittrock helps decide which businesses in Idaho will qualify for tax breaks under the Tax Reimbursement Incentive law passed in 2014. So far, the council has approved 26 projects that brought either expansion or new businesses to the Gem State from in-state and out-of-state companies.

The state law allows companies to receive up to a 30 percent refund of payroll, sales and state income taxes over 15 years if they produce at least 50 new jobs that pay higher than the county average.

Amy’s Kitchen received a 26 percent tax credit, which is valued at an estimated $6.7 million over the 15-year period, when it decided to move into the former Heinz plant in Pocatello.

In addition, Amy’s received a 75 percent property tax abatement over a 5-year period from the Bannock County Commission.

The company currently employs about 300 people in Pocatello with plans to expand to 1,000, according to Wittrock.

“Incentives are critical to economic development,” Wittrock said, adding that Idaho must compete with other states that offer incentive packages. “Government doesn’t create private sector jobs, but it can provide a good environment for private sector jobs.”

Wittrock said the incentive recently awarded to The Burrell Group to build the new Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine next to ISU’s Meridian campus is the most important one the state has approved. Burrell has pledged to spend $124 million on the for-profit school and has a working agreement to share campus facilities with ISU.

In addition to landing Amy’s Kitchen, Wittrock and Regetz shared that Bannock County has seen increases in employment from Great Western Malting, ATCO, Western States Caterpillar and SME Steel.

Even though county unemployment now stands at 3.4 percent, both men said higher-paying jobs are the key to continued prosperity.

Wittrock said Bannock County, like the rest of the nation, has experienced a shrinking middle class and “we have to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”

One of the keys to doing this is to partner with Idaho State University to make sure the local workforce is prepared to fill better-paying positions. Regetz said the Bannock Development Corp. has identified eight high-tech jobs for which qualified employees are hard to find.

“We’re educating high school students and the public about these careers,” Regetz said.

To do that, ISU, counties in Southeast Idaho, the Idaho National Laboratory and major businesses like Monsanto create job fairs under a program called YourFIT. The program has been under the stewardship of Scott Rasmussen, the dean of the College of Technology at ISU.

Regetz said the labor force in Pocatello and Chubbuck has grown from 41,189 jobs in 2012 to 42,974 in 2015.

“Hourly wages are up 12 percent,” Regetz said.

Both Regetz and Wittrock said efforts need to continue to address the underemployed in the county and to work with regional economic efforts like REDI, the Regional Economic Development for Southeast Idaho organization, headed by Jan Rogers.

Wittrock said Southeast Idaho needs to work collectively to attract new businesses. But each community must maintain a strong economic development organization.

“Our focus has to be on bringing in the higher-paying jobs,” Wittrock said.