First, I would reinforce the statements made in your stories by Sandy Bloem, mayor of Coeur d'Alene, that we are one economic region and that we will rise and fall together. It is very clear that the strength of one city will translate positively across the region, and that a weakness in Spokane, for example, will ripple across the cities to the east. That being said, there certainly are components of the region that are performing better than others, and during my lifetime there has always been an ebb and flow between Eastern Washington and North Idaho. Today the tide is running towards North Idaho for reasons that I believe are fundamental -- reasons that may define the foundation upon which our economic growth will rest for the next generation.
The economic growth of our region today is founded upon in-migration. This is not a migration "to" jobs that, as a region, we have created, but a migration to a better "quality of life" in which the migrants often "bring" with them their job as well as their net financial and civic worth. The impact has been impressive. Across the region our unemployment rates are the lowest in five years and maybe the lowest in a generation. This is despite the fact we have undergone an enormous loss of manufacturing, technology and agricultural jobs. (This list includes the closing of Kaiser Mead; job losses at Kaiser Trentwood, Telect, Agilent, Software Spectrum and on and on; the virtual closure of the grass seed industry on the Rathdrum Prairie; and the actual closure of several lumber mills).
I have always been frustrated by the narrow focus of our economic development efforts. It has always seemed to me that we try too hard to be something that we are not. Like parents who won't stop encouraging their son to go to law school when his real aptitude is art. We have few of the assets necessary to make us a significant high tech or bio-tech center. What we do have are magnificent natural resources, a world-class river, proximity to a vast range of top-tier recreational opportunities, affordable housing stock and the best summers to be found perhaps anywhere in the world. In today's world, where technology has given many the freedom to choose where they want to live and bring with them their job (or 401-K plan), these are important and valuable assets -- assets that will be the foundation of our economic and civic life.
I wish solid statistical data was available to document what we know to be true from our company's customers -- the families who buy our homes. Very large numbers of people are moving to our region and bringing their jobs with them. If you think about this in terms of the diversity and quality of the jobs (nearly all being very highly compensated professional or technical positions) and the positive selection of professional and creative people with the courage and determination to make a "quality of life" move, you can't help but be optimistic about what it means for us as a region.
Interestingly, the region is not benefiting from this dynamic in a uniform way. The migrants to the region choose with their feet and pocketbooks, and a very clear and defined pattern has emerged: They choose North Idaho over Eastern Washington by almost two-to-one despite Spokane's much larger population base. Coeur d'Alene and North Idaho have done a wonderful job of understanding their strengths, capitalizing on their assets and "branding" themselves effectively. They have a focus of vision and a civic energy that just does not exist in Spokane. In the future, the important question may not be whether the region needs Spokane but whether we will need Coeur d'Alene more.
Jim Frank is CEO of the Greenstone Corporation, which, among other projects, built much of present-day Liberty Lake.