Last week, the city of Pocatello officially joined Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho (REDI).
That is significant move because it now means that Idaho Falls, Chubbuck, Ammon, Ucon, Blackfoot, Shelley, Rexburg, Bonneville County and Bingham County are all aligned under a single umbrella to promote Eastern Idaho as a whole.
REDI CEO Jan Rogers was quoted in local media: “Adding Pocatello as member of our organization furthers REDI's efforts to secure strong regionalism and better market the entire Eastern Idaho corridor." That is an understatement.
Eastern Idaho, like many parts of Idaho, has historically had an array of local economic development organizations in the area often bumping elbows to compete for the same projects.
But, all these small economic development efforts suffered from a significant handicap. An individual city or county, if marketed individually, only has its own limited resources to offer. Idaho Falls is the largest community in the region. It can offer a population base of roughly 60,000, proximity to the Idaho National Laboratory, and one standalone institution of higher education, the new College of Eastern Idaho. Most communities have even less to offer.
But, the region as a whole has significant size to attract the attention of companies looking to relocate. The population of the corridor from Rexburg to Pocatello exceeds 300,000 and takes only a bit more than an hour to traverse.
There are a multitude of institutions of higher education: Idaho State University, Brigham Young University-Idaho and the College of Eastern Idaho.
In addition, there are two mid-sized airports, one in Pocatello and the other in Idaho Falls. The Idaho National Laboratory to the immediate west is brimming with scientists and engineers. The region has a wide array of employers: the FBI facility in Pocatello, Premier Technologies in Blackfoot and Melaleuca in Idaho Falls and host of small companies. The area is within spitting distance of Salt Lake City and not that far to Boise. And the region is surrounded with plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities with Yellowstone National Park to the north, Jackson Hole to the east, multiple ski resorts and large swaths of public land all around that are open to fishing, camping, mountain biking, hunting, hiking and more.
The idea of regional economic development was originally pushed by Bank of Idaho chairman Park Price. He bent the ear of local elected officials and those involved in regional economic development and sold them on the concept.
CEO Jan Rogers was an interesting key hire to run the organization. She has a strong track record, running Magic Valley’s own highly successful regional development authority. It had great success in attracting companies like Chobani and Cliff Bar, capitalizing on the area’s agricultural strengths.
REDI also recently landed outgoing Ammon Mayor Dana Kirkham for the newly created position of Science Technology and Research Director. Kirkham previously worked for the federal government, CIA and the State Department. She’ll focus on leveraging the Idaho National Laboratory, local high-tech companies and local college and universities to nurture economic activity that has a technology or scientific flavor. She is smart and well connected.
The next question is which other regional cities and counties will join REDI? Rigby, Soda Springs, Driggs, St. Anthony, Ashton and Arco all should seriously look at aligning, as should the surrounding counties.
In some sense, aggressive economic development seems unnecessary right now. Eastern Idaho today enjoys low unemployment and a continual influx of companies. But, the region is overly dependent on agriculture and the Idaho National Laboratory.
Expanding and diversifying the economic base is the best way to maximize future prosperity. The willingness of so much of Eastern Idaho to fuse together under the REDI banner is a huge development. Concerted efforts should yield an even higher rate of new companies moving to the region and better retention and expansion of existing enterprises. It all bodes well for Eastern Idaho’s future.