Former Pocatello Mayor Roger Chase, left, answers a question after participating in an economic impact forum. (photo/Mark Mendiola)
With Battelle Energy Alliance and CH2M-WG Idaho eliminating hundreds of high-paying jobs in the past year with more layoffs to come at the Idaho National Laboratory, eastern Idaho’s economy has taken a major hit unlike anything it has absorbed in recent years.
The second largest employer in Idaho behind state government, INL has accounted for about 8,000 direct jobs and roughly 24,000 indirect jobs in the state, boasting a $3.5 billion total economic impact and generating about 6 percent of Idaho’s entire tax revenue.
At its peak, total INL employment once stood at 13,000. About 3.5 percent of Idaho’s total work force has been attributed to INL with one in five jobs from Pocatello to Rexburg tied to the federal nuclear research and development site, including an estimated 760 employees in Pocatello and about 1,200 in Blackfoot, not to mention the majority of INL workers in Idaho Falls.
While Bonneville County has benefited the most from the billions of federal dollars pumped into the INL over the years, Bannock and Bingham counties also have reaped lucrative cream off the top.
Pocatello, however, has suffered significant setbacks in the past year. Hoku Materials’ polysilicon plant, once considered a great boon to Bannock County’s economy, sits hauntingly vacant after hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in it and some 200 employees were terminated.
Since acquiring AMI Semiconductor in March 2008, Phoenix-based ON Semiconductor has reduced employment at its Pocatello plant – once AMI’s world headquarters – by a few hundred, but it has invested millions into sophisticated equipment at the integrated circuit fabrication site.
Heinz’ frozen food plant in Pocatello at one time surpassed the ON plant and Union Pacific Railroad as Pocatello’s largest private employer with 800 workers, but it cut 80 full-time employees this month due to eliminating a frozen food line, dropping its total employment now to about 400.
The Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo once pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Pocatello’s economy in one week, attracting thousands of enthusiasts, but it trotted off to Oklahoma City in 2011 after 23 years at Idaho State University’s Holt Arena.
The Western Frontier Pro Rodeo ran in its place for two years, but as of 2013, there will be no major rodeo in Pocatello for the first time in 70 years, hurting motels, restaurants and retail stores accustomed to the annual boost in spending.
Needless to say, these daunting developments pose stiff challenges for the region’s business and government leaders. Some of those key players appeared at a well-attended March 27 economic impact panel discussion at Idaho State University and emphasized positive trends in the region, expressing optimism.
It was disclosed that evening at the forum that Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad and Bannock Development Corp. Executive Director John Regetz were in California seeking to recruit companies disgruntled by the Golden State’s rising taxes and burdensome regulations.
Allstate’s location of a customer service center in Chubbuck that employs hundreds was cited as a major coup for Bannock County. A WinCo super store recently opened and Herberger’s opened its first department store in Idaho at the Pine Ridge Mall. Canadian-based ATCO also recently located a manufacturing operation at the Gateway West Industrial Center.
Responding to questions about Hoku, former Pocatello Mayor Roger Chase and Idaho Department of Commerce Chief Economic Development Officer Gynii Gilliam explained that because Hoku was a new company engaged in new technology, the city decided it was too risky to finance the project by selling bonds. Gilliam was Bannock Development’s executive director at the time, and Chase was mayor.
Using creative financing, the city required Hoku to front the money. “If we had bonded it, we would be in big trouble right now,” Gilliam said, noting the plant was under construction for five years, greatly improving the property. “Pocatello is not out anything.”
Chase said the city owns the Hoku property and put $1 million into the project. The site’s infrastructure and equipment, including an electrical substation, are worth an estimated $30 million. All of its onsite steel will not go to waste, Chase predicted.
Chase, who chairs the Idaho Water Resource Board and serves as a consultant for the Bingham Economic Development Corporation, said one of the greatest challenges for economic developers is securing good paying jobs with benefits. Retail sales also are struggling in the region, he noted.
High commodity prices have helped the agriculture sector, and the stock market’s rise has boosted 401(k) values, creating more spendable income, Chase said. However, he noted Idaho has the highest percentage of people making minimum wage in the nation and one of the lowest average incomes per family.
After Pocatello in 2001 lost FMC’s elemental phosphorus plant that employed hundreds of workers and Union Pacific downsized its Pocatello operations, a $12-an-hour job with benefits is now considered good, he said. (more…)