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Where’s Pocatello going?

mendiola MARK


Pocatello lost about 3,200 jobs between 2007 and 2009 when companies moved out of the Gate City, shuttered their businesses and closed their doors. From 2002 to 2010, Pocatello grew only about 1 percent in population, losing its status as Idaho’s second largest city, Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad reflects.

By comparison, Chubbuck grew about 46 percent and Idaho Falls grew by double digits during the same period. Pocatello now ranks behind Boise, Nampa, Meridian and Idaho Falls in size, according to 2010 Census data.

Speaking on a recent “Business Dynamics” interview program that airs on Pocatello’s Vision 12 cable access station, Blad said from 2003 to 2006 the city’s economy was doing pretty well in tandem with the nation moving forward. However, things started turning downward from 2007 to 2008, he noted.

“Things got pretty tough after the market meltdown,” said Blad, a political unknown who defeated Pocatello Mayor Roger Chase in a 2009 municipal election upset.

Chase is running again for the city’s top post, hoping to reverse an embarrassing defeat. It is widely presumed Blad will seek re-election although he has not formally announced.

When Blad took office in 2010, “we were in pretty bad shape. I might add we’re not in great shape now. We’re still 1,000 jobs down. We’re still in trouble in my mind,” he said, estimating 2,200 jobs have been added the past 3½ years.

Blad credits hiring by Allstate Insurance, Petersen Inc., Pocatello Regional Medical Center, WinCo, Dick’s Sporting Goods, ON Semiconductor and other employers for contributing to the city’s turnaround in recent years.

“We’ve been able to chip away at the deficit of 3,200 jobs,” he said, adding he hopes a recent successful recruiting trip to California will generate hundreds of new jobs for Pocatello and eliminate that deficit.

Blad and Bannock Development Corp. Executive Director John Regetz visited 10 California companies in three days. Seven of those companies have committed to visit Pocatello this summer, which historically does not happen. Usually, it’s a two-year process before a company will visit a prospective site after being contacted, he said.

The prospective California firms range from high technology to retail to construction, Blad said. The owner of one company that potentially could employ 1,000 and be located at the Pocatello Regional Airport is very interested in relocating, but prefers to pay his workers $9.50 an hour.

The city counters that $15 an hour is a living wage and argues he could afford to pay that by the amount of money he would save in taxes, energy costs and other expenses by moving to Idaho, which is much more business-friendly than California, Blad said.

A very high tech company could employ up to 30 employees, but pay them $150,000 to $200,000 a year. An existing company could eventually hire 440 workers, but some creative financing needs to be arranged, the mayor said. Some of the contacted companies would pay $40,000 to $75,000 in annual wages.

Allstate nearly backed out of locating a customer service center in the Pocatello area after it had indicated it would “sign on the dotted line,” Blad said, noting that last minute conflicts arose, which nearly scuttled the deal. “To have the carpet ripped out from under you is just devastating.”

Blad said he and other city officials scrambled to help make arrangements for Allstate to locate in Chubbuck by providing Pocatello building inspection, engineering and legal assets, which Chubbuck lacks. He also traveled to Allstate’s corporate headquarters in Chicago, whose number of employees there virtually equal Chubbuck’s population.

Allstate executives were concerned about Bannock County’s relatively small population base and were hesitant about locating a customer service center in the Pocatello/Chubbuck area, which would be the company’s smallest market in the nation, Blad said, adding Allstate was considering Chicago, Charlotte, N.C., and San Antonio for a call center. Pocatello also was competing against Salt Lake City and Ogden for it.

Mayor Brian Blad

After they were persuaded to commit to Pocatello/Chubbuck, Allstate officials now “absolutely love” their new Bannock County location, recently closing a Chicago call center, which was outperformed by the one here, Blad said.

Originally, Allstate was planning to employ 600 at its Chubbuck center, but recently announced the addition of about 270 more jobs, soon bringing its total local employment to nearly 900.

Blad and Chubbuck Mayor Steven England also worked closely to retain Petersen Inc. in the area after that Ogden-based manufacturing company planned to completely pull out of the Gateway West Industrial Center. Petersen will boost its employment to about 100 at its new Pocatello Regional Airport location, Blad said.

He emphasized that employment at Allstate and Petersen will total 1,000 between those two companies alone. Potentially, Southern California could add 4,000 to 5,000 jobs to Bannock County’s economy the next four to five years, Blad said.

Blad praised WinCo’s location of a large new grocery store at the location of the vacated Fred Meyer and Albertsons stores on the corner of Yellowstone and Alameda, which has sat vacant for 20 years, making it a blighted area and eyesore for decades.

WinCo has hired an additional 100 employees at its new site, where a new credit union and Carl’s Jr. fast food outlet also will open. Ridley’s will move into the old WinCo store, but keep its other store across town open.

Hoku’s recent bankruptcy and shutdown of its $700 million polysilicon plant has been a major setback for Pocatello’s economy. It had planned to initially hire 200 and eventually add 400 to its payroll. Blad noted the previous city administration spent $1 million on land for Hoku’s plant.

“It was a good idea, I assume,” he said. “The city council and mayor at the time felt it would make a good project.”

The price for polysilicon needed for solar panels has plunged, but had it stayed high as when the project was first planned, the Hoku plant could have been making $1 million a day, Hoku officials told the city.

Blad said the South Valley Connector that will link South Bannock Highway to South Fifth Avenue with a tie-in roadway to South Second Avenue will open the sound end of Pocatello to economic development. Construction on it has started after more than 20 years of planning.

“We started pushing harder than we’ve ever pushed on it,” Blad said. “This shows Pocatello is moving. We’re not standing still or going backward.”

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