By: Megan Lawson
What are our community’s economic assets, and what areas need shoring up? Is our economy headed in the right direction? What do we need to maintain its resilience? This fall, business leaders, elected officials, state and local government staff, and economists gathered to discuss strengths and weaknesses of Bonner County’s economy, as well as nearby Boundary County, at a new workshop called What’s Happening Up North.
The first theme that emerged during the meeting was the breadth of innovative companies that are driving our economy, including cutting-edge firms in software, aerospace, and biotechnology. These innovative companies have opened, stayed, and expanded in Bonner County because their founders appreciate our community and quality of life, not because this is the most convenient place to operate their businesses.
One of the major challenges that business owners voiced is finding employees locally with the right skills and education to match their needs. This problem is not limited to Sandpoint, but is an ongoing challenge across Idaho as baby boomers retire and there are relatively few workers to take their place. However, the problem may be particularly acute here because we have fewer high school graduates than other parts of the state.
To address some of this need, Idaho PTECH and North Idaho High School Aerospace Program are connecting high school students to local businesses, providing mentorship and facilitating careers in growing high tech industries. The recently passed bond for the Lake Pend Oreille School District will improve primary education for our children, increasing their chances of finding well-paying jobs in our community. We learned from this workshop that we need to be deliberate and active in educating our children and workforce in order to maintain our economic advantage and meet the needs of evolving business sectors.
However, not all of our children will be able to find the jobs they want in our community when they finish their education. How can we create jobs that allow our children to remain in the area? Most businesses in our community are start-ups or expansions of existing businesses, not existing businesses that move to the area. We need to continue fostering the homegrown talent and entrepreneurial spirit that has contributed to successful businesses like Quest Aircraft, Timbersled, xCraft, Tamarack Aerospace, Biomedical Innovations, Kochava and others. Speakers at the workshop discussed the Panhandle Area Council and Small Business Development Center, organizations that support this entrepreneurial spirit by providing assistance for start-up businesses and also helping existing businesses grow.
Business leaders and economists also discussed the challenge posed by rising housing costs, which are increasing faster than incomes can keep up. This is only adding to business’ challenge of finding qualified employees locally. Purposeful planning around affordable housing can help to ensure we keep our rural community character while sustaining our local workforce and protecting our long-term economic prospects.
From this workshop, we saw that there are many reasons for optimism about our community’s economy. We have weathered low snow years, corporate bankruptcies, and national recessions due to our diverse economy and residents’ commitment to the area. We are unique among rural communities in the West in that our manufacturing sector is large and growing, and innovative businesses in our community are highly successful despite their distance to major markets. We can keep residents here and attract new ones because of our unparalleled quality of life.
That said, we need to be aware of the major challenges presented by a lack of a skilled workforce and demographic shifts. As older residents retire and our community continues to be a retirement destination, a greater demand will be placed on working age residents to fill their jobs. Our mountains, lakes, and rivers help us to recruit workers from outside the region. But through high school and higher education programs connecting to industry as well as small business development programs, state incentives for businesses, and resources and training from the Idaho Department of Labor, we can take steps to develop skilled employees locally.
Keeping our community’s economy vibrant and resilient will take ongoing, deliberate efforts like these. We call on elected officials, business owners, entrepreneurs, and residents to stay engaged, support these types of programs, and look for other ways we can leverage our quality of life to foster local businesses.