Jan Rogers believes the foundation for a regional economic boom is being laid because eastern Idaho’s small cities and counties no longer view themselves as competing for growth.
Rather, Rogers explained they’re beginning to embrace their roles as players in a burgeoning innovation corridor — stretching 78 miles from Pocatello to Rexburg, book-ended by major universities and home to a collective population base of about 300,000.
Rogers is the CEO of Regional Economic Development Eastern Idaho, a 2-year-old organization seeking to market all 14 eastern Idaho counties together to make a greater impression during business recruitment.
“This is the first time eastern Idaho has tried to put together a regional approach to development,” Rogers said. “We’re a much bigger target as a region.”
When REDI launched in 2015, its membership included Bonneville and Bingham counties and the cities of Idaho Falls, Shelley, Blackfoot, Ammon and Ucon. Rexburg joined early this year. City leaders with Chubbuck and Pocatello initially opposed membership in REDI, but recently have been won over. Chubbuck joined in April, and Pocatello followed in November.
Though Rogers emphasizes REDI is still in its infancy, she’s optimistic about a few early successes and believes announcements of major business expansions may be on the horizon.
One of the first companies Rogers targeted through REDI, eCobalt Solutions Inc., recently announced plans to open a cobalt mine in Salmon, and a refinery, representing a roughly $100 million capital investment, in Blackfoot.
About a year and a half ago, REDI representatives attended the Select USA conference in Washington, D.C., where they made believers of a Japanese technology company, Sakae Casting.
Sakae hopes to manufacture casks in eastern Idaho for intermediate storage of spent nuclear fuel rods. The company has received a grant from the Idaho Department of Commerce to partner with University of Idaho, Boise State University and the Center for Advanced Energy Studies to test its concept.
Park Price, who serves as chairman of the boards of REDI, Bank of Idaho and College of Eastern Idaho, said another company that works closely with Sakae also is investigating sites in the region, and the innovation corridor has begun to generate a “buzz” among Japanese companies.
“There are five or six other significant projects underway at various stages that would like to locate here if they can solve some of the issues they’re looking at,” Price said. “If they can solve them, then we’ll have announcements.”
REDI operates on an annual budget of about $500,000 — 35 percent of which comes from cities and counties, and the remainder contributed by private businesses.
A proven track record
In 2011, while most other regional economies were recovering from the Great Recession, Idaho’s Magic Valley launched a rapid economic growth trend that hasn’t slowed.
Starting with Chobani Greek Yogurt, food manufacturers and companies providing support services announced a flurry of commitments to build within the region.
Rogers was central to Magic Valley’s good fortune, serving at the time as executive director of the region’s Southern Idaho Economic Development Organization.
Rogers explained her long-term strategy was to capitalize on Magic Valley’s agricultural economy and brand the region as “America’s most diverse food basket.”
Growth began attracting more growth. Chobani’s decision prompted Cliff Bar to investigate southern Idaho and move forward with its own regional plant.
During a 10-month period, Rogers said Magic Valley added 5,000 direct and indirect jobs and about $800 million in capital investments. The Twin Falls Times-News credited Rogers with making 35 new business announcements during her 14-year career.
“It was ridiculous,” Rogers said. “It started to snowball, and it’s continuing to this day.”
The identity she’s pushing capitalizes on the scientific research conducted by several private-sector technology companies, Idaho State University, Brigham Young University-Idaho and Idaho National Laboratory. She also touts the influence of the College of Eastern Idaho, ISU-Idaho Falls and the region’s “five diverse federal programs,” including an expanding FBI center in Pocatello.
Rogers added that the largest project in the state broke ground at the INL this year — the U.S. Navy’s $1.65 billion spent fuel facility. Furthermore, NuScale Power LLC has selected INL as the site for a planned small modular reactor, representing a roughly $1.8 billion investment. The company vows it will provide the “next generation of advanced nuclear technology.”
Rogers explained she and her staff have attended conferences and submitted articles to economic development publications to raise awareness about the happenings at the INL and other regional innovations that have thus far captured too little attention.
To further its regional innovation goals, REDI recently added a fourth staff member, former Ammon Mayor Dana Kirkham, to serve as director of science, technology and research.
Price explained REDI has efforts underway to address a missed opportunity for the region — eastern Idaho’s universities are graduating thousands of skilled students, but most feel compelled to look elsewhere for work.
Price said REDI is promoting the opportunity for companies to have “first whack” at the region’s new college graduates in its recruitment efforts. The organization also commissioned a Rexburg company to research why millennials choose to stay or leave the region, and REDI plans to form a workgroup of “high-performing” millennials to devise a strategy for attracting and retaining young talent.
REDI’s false start in southeast Idaho
Price admits he thought REDI would be an easy sell to eastern Idaho counties and cities when a group of regional business and civic leaders first proposed to coordinate their economic development efforts.
Indeed, Idaho Falls and Bingham County dissolved their individual economic development entities and embraced REDI as a better path forward. The fledgling organization hit a snag, however, in southeast Idaho, where the local growth organization, Bannock Development Corp., opposed joining REDI.
“The concept was Bannock Development would go away and REDI would be a single economic development tool from Rexburg to the Utah border,” said Chubbuck Mayor Kevin England. “I was not on board with that.”
Price, the former owner of a Pocatello car dealership, admits REDI proponents initially were humbled because “we didn’t listen well enough.”
Once Rogers joined REDI, however, the organization refined its role — offering to provide regional marketing services and a first point of contact to companies wishing to schedule several site visits throughout the region. Bannock Development now takes over when companies need more information on a site in southeast Idaho.
“REDI has told us they want to make Bannock Development a stronger organization,” said England, whose taxpayers give REDI $12,000 per year, based on Chubbuck’s population. “It’s a bigger light. It makes us more visible.”
John Regetz, Bannock Development’s president and CEO, said his organization has had a hand in several recent business expansions, including the new Western States Caterpillar building, the planned expansions of the local FBI center and Great Western Malting Plant and the recent addition of Buchanan & Edwards, a data processing, analysis and cyber security company.
“We view REDI as offering another marketing avenue to the outside world,” Regetz said. “This is a different model than we saw before.”
Pocatello will contribute $30,000 per year to REDI, said Mayor Brian Blad. Based on his community’s recent economic development successes and Idaho Department of Labor statistics showing a regional unemployment rate of just 2.3 percent, as well as wage growth of 11 percent from July 2016 to July 2017, Blad said Pocatello was in no hurry to join REDI. Blad said the City Council recently concluded Bannock Development has gotten so busy it “no longer has the time to market the way we would like them to, so REDI is going to be our marketing arm.”
“You talk to the governor, and Pocatello has been growing faster economic development-wise than any other community in the state,” Blad said.
Bannock County Commissioners, who have yet to join REDI, declined to comment, indicating membership is not currently “on their radar.” Price said REDI has made a few presentations to the county, but progress has been stymied by recent turnover within the commission.