People remain the most important piece in the regional economic development puzzle. Maximizing local talent is critical to the continued success of the region. On the surface the labor market has positive indicators. The regional unemployment rate in recent years has tended to be lower than both the state and national rates. As well, the region’s U-6 rate of 8.2%, which includes unemployed, involuntary part-time, marginally attached, and discouraged workers, is also below the state rate.
Nevertheless, there are several demographics within the labor force that are cause for concern. The largest segment of the region’s workforce by age, is comprised of those over the age of 55. As this population retires and exits the workforce, the risk of labor shortages increases. Additionally, women account for less than half the region’s labor force, despite total population being divided nearly 50/50.
Overcoming language barriers among workers is another key component to fully utilizing the regions labor force. Over the last twenty years, the CSI Refugee Center has assisted in relocating individuals from over 14 countries. Hispanics comprised 24% of the total regional population in 2019, almost double the statewide percentage and 6% higher than the nation. Often with limited English proficiency, these workers often take on low-paying, low-skilled jobs, resulting in underemployment for a significant segment of the workforce.
Fully utilizing the entire regional population to develop a qualified labor force is needed to retain quality jobs within the region.
Idaho has reached its limit regarding processing capacity of milk, preventing the ability of regional dairies to grow. The COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted this existing weakness in the dairy supply chain. Because milk processors serve specific markets and were unable to pivot when the market demand shifted due to school closures and community lockdowns, many producers were forced to dump milk. The need to grow and diversify the Idaho dairy market is a paramount concern. Regional stakeholders are striving to establish Southern Idaho as a leader in technological advancement and research for the food processing sector. This initiative and research will focus on improving processing efficiency, reduction of environmental impact, increased workforce safety, and the use of artificial intelligence in food processing.
The Dairy Industry has evolved into a high-tech field with the use of robots, nutritionists, and climate-controlled environments to ensure cow health and quality milk production.
Photo: Top Left - Modern milk bulk tanks;
Top Right – A robotic milking arm;
Bottom left – Specialized feed storage and trucks are used are necessary at large dairy operations;
Bottom right – Suntado Milk Plant under construction in Burley.
Climate Change and Natural Disasters
Numerous active faults in South-central Idaho puts Idaho at risk for both large-scale, infrequent earthquakes and small, frequent swarms of quakes. The most recent large-scale quake occurred in March 2020 and measured a magnitude of 6.5, the second largest in state history. The quake caused the Stanley Lake delta to liquify and collapse.
In the year following the Stanley Earthquake more than 3,200 aftershocks were recorded. The most recent aftershock on May 10, 2022, was detected at Triumph Mine, an abandoned lead, zinc, and silver mine which has been designated as a Brownfield site due to the presence of contaminated tailings and water discharge. The earthquake was detected on the lower tailings pile. While cleanup and mitigation of the site have lowered air and water contamination to below federal standards, damage to the discharge system piping due to an earthquake could cause the release of heavy metal contamination into nearby river systems. These seismic events serve as reminders of the active nature of Idaho’s faults and the need for planning and emergency preparedness.
In South-central Idaho, water is the lifeblood of practically every aspect of the regional economy. The region was nicknamed "Magic Valley" because of the blooming of the desert triggered by irrigation. The harnessing of the Snake River, Wood River and Snake River Plain Aquifer has created an agricultural oasis supporting many diverse crops. However, during times of drought, this oasis can turn on itself, crippling the regional economy. For example, known for its potato production, Idaho also leads the nation in potato seed production. This commodity can be severely impacted by hot, dry drought conditions, leading to reduced yields. Totally dependent on snowfall in the upper basins of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, the fortunes of thousands rely on the sometimes stingy and capricious gifts from Mother Nature. In July 2021, all of Idaho was considered abnormally dry according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. South-central Idaho was categorized as in extreme drought with portions of Region IV counties categorized as exception drought. Snowpack for 2022 proved to be disappointing as snow was already melting April 1, the benchmark for peak snowpack. On April 29, 2022, Governor Little approved an Idaho Department of Water Resources emergency drought declaration for all 34 counties in Southern Idaho, with reservoirs between 20-65% of capacity.xii A year later, the region was blessed with above normal snowpack and a cool spring, which eased drought conditions and allowed for some aquifer recharge. While the region is currently in a good water position, that could rapidly change year-to-year. Being prepared for future drought conditions is essential to maintaining regional prosperity.
Although water is primarily used for agriculture, it is also necessary for industrial and domestic use. During 2022, water curtailments on the city and county levels became common with deepening concerns of the potential for municipal wells to go dry. Tourism impacts on the economy are also tied to the availability of water for fishing, boating, swimming, and skiing. Exploration and promotion of techniques to reduce water consumption and increase efficiency, such as converting irrigation canals to closed pipelines and implementation of soil moisture monitors is needed to ensure the region’s continued ability to produce agriculture products. As a result of this overwhelming connection between water and the economy, the region’s leaders must pay special attention to water quality and quantity issues.
Deficiencies in Supporting-Clusters
An often overlooked aspect of owning an agricultural business is succession planning. “The average age of agriculture producers is relatively high compared with other industry sectors. In Idaho, the average age is 56.4 and varies among the mid-50s across all eight counties in south central Idaho.”xiv As the number of baby boomers retiring increases, the consequences of not having viable succession plans, is reflected in the diminishing number of farms due to consolidation of operations. The regions reliance on agriculture and food manufacturing demands initiatives be taken to preserve prime farmland from being developed for non-production uses.
The February 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine caused significant impact to the global economy. International sanctions again Russia and disruptions to Ukrainian exports, particularly in crude oil, natural gas, and fertilizer has led to volatility in the Idaho Agriculture sector which producers will need to overcome. Additionally, corporate decisions to forgo trading relationships with Russia influence the balance of supply and demand. For example, following the invasion of Ukraine, potato processing giant McCain Foods discontinued construction of a Russian processing facility and halted shipment of finished products. While based in Canada, McCain Foods is a significant presence in the food processing industry in South-central Idaho. Fewer consumers of Idaho grown potatoes, means a potential for supply to exceed demand.
The October 2023 conflict between Hamas and Israel has the potential of igniting a broader war in the Middle East and plunging the world economy into a recession. War in the energy-producing region would lead to more expensive oil which in turn would cause even greater inflation and a slow-down in growth. Events like this remind us how interconnected we are to events happening around the world.
As one of the fastest growing states in the country, Idaho is experiencing a housing conundrum. Housing inventory has been unable to keep pace with demand, which has driven home prices out of reach of many locals who are now competing with out-of-town buyers who have larger budgets due to the elevated real estate markets they are escaping from. Zillow found Idaho home prices rose 20% in 2020.xvii Rental properties are also seeing extreme influxes making finding affordable housing increasing difficult for “young, single, and lower income persons”.xviii The housing crisis is not unique to Idaho metropolitan areas or resort towns. The same concerns are being echoed across the state as more and more residents struggle to find suitable housing. 18% of Idaho middle income households are considered cost burdened, where they are spending more than 30% for housing and utilities. Because these households have an income above the county Annual Median Income (AMI) support is rarely available.
Collaboration among city/county leadership and community stakeholders to identify realistic solutions will be necessary to combat this increasingly urgent crisis. Action to be considered include:
- Updating city/county zoning ordinances to make construction faster and less expensive
- Promoting Brownfield assessment and cleanup to revitalize blighted properties. This has the added benefit of protecting public health from contamination, taking pressure off greenspace, and curbing urban sprawl.
In May 2022, the City of Ketchum proposed to voters a local option tax which would have provided a revenue stream to implement a Housing Action Plan focused on providing workforce housing. Failure of the proposed tax has sent city leadership back to the drawing board to identify ways to finance implementation of the housing plan. Private efforts, such as the Quigley Farm development are working to address the housing shortage, but a broad, long-term plan is needed to combat the growing crisis.
While main and short-line rail services are available through Union Pacific Railroad and Eastern Idaho Railroad/WATCO, limited rail lines and the complexity of accessing rail cars increases both the cost and time to get products to market, which in turn increases the risk of spoilage of perishable agricultural products.
The region also suffers a complete absence of passenger rail service. Amtrak discontinued the Pioneer Route, which ran between Seattle and Chicago, in 1997. The route had four stops in southern Idaho, including Shoshone. In 2023 the City of Boise and other stakeholders began an initiative to bring passenger rail back to the area. To move the project forward funding is needed to complete feasibility studies, engineering, environmental reviews, and construction.
Friedman Memorial Airport (SUN) in Blaine County is Idaho's second busiest airport. It serves the communities of Blaine County, including Ketchum, Sun Valley and Hailey and the world-famous Sun Valley Resort. SUN offers non-stop commercial air service to Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Due to site limitations, which cause winter weather-related diversions, an effort has been under way for some years to relocate SUN out of the relatively narrow mountain valley to flatter terrain to the south.
Regularly scheduled commercial air service is also available at the Magic Valley Regional Airport located roughly 10 miles south of Twin Falls. The airfield is capable of handling single engine aircraft, small private jets, and the occasional 727. Decreased travel demand, due in part to COVID-19, resulted in a reduction of flight offerings, The minimal service has created economic hardships for area business and tourism travelers. To ensure continued service to Salt Lake City, the City of Twin Falls and Twin Falls County approved a minimum revenue agreement with SkyWest in Spring 2022.
In July 2023 the City of Twin Falls launched a micro-transit system to provide on-demand service within the Twin Falls city boundary and to the Magic Valley Regional Airport. The system provides a valuable service to the community and highlights the need for expanded public transportation within the region. Multi-jurisdictional service would further accommodate residents, given the rural nature of the region.
Despite consistent efforts to improve mobility within the region, communities continue to face the ongoing issues of increasing traffic congestion, deteriorating roadways, limited alternatives to automobile travel, and archaic funding mechanisms that do not keep pace with the needs of the system. Notwithstanding efforts at the State level to add new revenue to address immediate highway improvement issues, funding for the roadway network has not kept pace with either maintenance needs or the need to increase capacity where traffic volume has grown most significantly. Several major capacity constraints exist throughout the region:
- Along the U.S. 93/Idaho 75 corridor from Twin Falls through Ketchum
- Overland Avenue in Burley
- The Perrine and Hansen Bridges over the Snake River linking the City of Twin Falls with I-84
There is support for construction of an additional bridge by both the Jerome and Twin Falls County Commissioners, which could elevate traffic concerns entering and exiting the City of Twin Falls. An additional bridge would also simplify shipping routes for interstate trucking. U.S. Interstate 84 provides the major east/west transportation route through the Region. Just east of Burley, Interstate 86 branches off from I-84 toward eastern Idaho - Pocatello where it links up with Interstate 15 to Idaho Falls (north) and Salt Lake City, Utah (south). Another major north/south route is U.S. 93 which provides truckers a more direct access from Canada to California.