By KEVIN TREVELLYAN, firstname.lastname@example.org
Eastern Idaho offers flowing rivers and vast wilderness — world-class fishing and plenty of space to see the stars from beside a tent.
There are two universities in eastern Idaho, in Pocatello and Rexburg, fewer than 80 miles from each other, with a major national research laboratory situated between.
And while many eastern Idahoans want to keep those gems a secret, the woman in charge of marketing the region is looking for more exposure.
“We haven’t done a good job of telling the story, as a state, of all the wonders we have here. We should be the ‘it’ state,” said Jan Rogers, CEO of REDI. “Part of our problem, from a marketing perspective, is that there’s no focused message on ‘What is eastern Idaho?’ You have to market what differentiates you from everyone else in the world.”
REDI, Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho, is a public/private partnership set up to strengthen regional economies. Established last April, the organization is trying to market the attributes that make the region unique in an effort to attract new businesses and the burgeoning millennial workforce.
“The biggest issue, a national issue for any economic development effort at all, is talent,” Rogers said. “If you can demonstrate that you have the talent, and you can fill that pipeline as it develops, and you’re a place where this new talent wants to come and be, then you’re ahead of the game. Businesses will follow.”
REDI represents Bingham and Bonneville counties, and coordinates with 12 other counties. It’s a conduit between businesses searching nationally for a place to expand, and the local cities and counties trying to court them.
“The real economic competition is national and global, and competing effectively on those scales requires regional collaboration,” said Dana Briggs, economic development director for the city of Idaho Falls. “And regional success translates into improved local employment opportunities, tax base and amenities for our city and residents.”
A team approach
Rogers headed SIEDO, southern Idaho’s economic development firm, for 14 years before moving east for her new position. During that time, a plethora of businesses from different economic sectors set up operations in the Magic Valley.
“People ask me what my greatest success was in southern Idaho — Dell, Chobani, Clif Bar — none of the above,” Rogers said. “The greatest success was being able to pull the region together so they worked as a team. Focused, with a focused message, an endgame in mind, and egos set aside.”
REDI developed out of Grow Idaho Falls and the Bingham Economic Development Corporation. The new organization’s broad geographic focus is designed to foster unity within the region, as Rogers did in southern Idaho.
The importance of regional unity is echoed by Chris St Jeor, regional economist for the Idaho Department of Labor.
“In regional economic development, they say a rising tide raises all ships,” St Jeor said. “If you have a specific region with five different agencies competing for the same project against each other, they’re putting that many resources into it, and getting the same face time with the business. If they’re able to collaborate, they can leverage power as a whole.”
The original intent was to also include Pocatello and Bannock County in the effort, but those overtures were rebuffed by the Bannock Development Corp. board of directors and the mayors from Chubbuck and Pocatello as well as all three members of the Bannock County Commission citing “different interests and different markets.”
Appealing to a younger crowd
One of REDI’s biggest challenges is marketing eastern Idaho to millennials, the largest percentage of the world’s workforce, said St Jeor.
REDI is preparing to hire an independent research firm this fall to conduct focus groups on millennials in the region in an effort to figure out what attracts them to an area, and keeps them there. Doing so is critical in a region with an aging workforce.
“Personally, I’m afraid that if we brought in any sizable new piece of business at this point that our existing businesses would be throwing bricks at us because of the extra pressure it would put on the talent,” Rogers said.
The Idaho National Laboratory, for example, is feeling the strain of retiring baby boomers. As eastern Idaho’s largest employer, roughly 30 percent of its staff is 50 or older, said INL Director of Partnerships Amy Lientz.
“The other challenge is that we’re growing at the same time, so we have to pay attention to our aging workforce — the areas in which they’re departing — while at the same time making sure we’re looking at the areas in which we’re developing,” Lientz said. “And we’ve found we have similar needs to other industries in eastern Idaho; we all have this challenge.”
Drawing on past success
Drawing a stronger millennial workforce will draw businesses, Rogers said.
From there, regions can observe a domino effect once employers start to initiate operations, St Jeor said.
Rogers cites that as a big factor in southern Idaho’s recent success attracting businesses.
“We wouldn’t have even gotten a look from Clif Bar if we didn’t have Chobani,” Rogers said. “Once you get that momentum going, then you have to leverage it. And it’s addictive. When you win you just want to keep winning; you get on a streak and it’s very powerful.”
Southern Idaho was able to leverage its identity as a diverse agricultural region, with crops, sheep, cattle, fish and honey production, to draw food-related corporations to the area.
REDI is attempting to do the same in eastern Idaho, with a shifted focus to the region’s own strengths.
“We’re going to helpfully drive more opportunity to the region, whether you come to live here or do business,” Rogers said. “My hope is the region will come together. It didn’t happen overnight in southern Idaho. But I don’t have 14 years to put in eastern Idaho, so we’re going to have to ramp it up. And I think we can. I hope we can.
Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 542-6762.