While residents observe the general economy of Boundary County, Dennis Weed, executive director of the Boundary County Economic Development Council, has his pulse on the state of our local economy each and every day. And from what he reports, there are reasons to be optimistic. Here is some of what he has to say:
Q. How does the state of the economy in Boundary County differ from one year ago?
A. Boundary County has about the same number of people employed as it did one year ago. Approximately 70 to 80 jobs have been unfilled in the county for the last several months.
Some of our industries are looking for employees, and the wages offered are sufficient for a family of four in Idaho. Similar to most of North Idaho, Boundary County has a sufficient number of jobs for residents looking for work. Most of the Boundary area contractors are busy and have work lined up for the next year.
The business environment is favorable for starting a business, and Boundary County saw several new businesses start this year. Businesses in the county as a whole have been prospering these past few years. Many businesses have seen their sales volume increase from prior years, which led to an increase in jobs and wages. The business environment should remain favorable for businesses into next year.
Q. Has the addition of Shopko helped boost the economy, both in terms of employment and drawing people from Canada and Northwestern Montana to shop in Bonners Ferry?
A. Shopko has been a great addition to Bonners Ferry. It has allowed residents to purchase items here in Bonners rather than spending their money outside of our county. Having a store that offers a variety of home and business products has reduced the amount of dollars our residents spend elsewhere. Shopko has drawn some of our Canadian visitors to its store, and Canadian dollars are a significant part of its business revenue. The Boundary County Shopko has been a welcome addition to our residents.
Q. Areas such as Sandpoint have seen an increase in telecommuters, which has made having reliable and effective Internet service vital. Ting has recently come to Sandpoint and is installing fiber Internet. Does Boundary County have a significant number of telecommuters? What are the plans for high-speed Internet in Boundary County?
A. Boundary County does have a number of telecommuters that represent a variety of large Fortune 500 companies. The wages paid to those telecommuter workers represent some of the highest wages in the county. We continue to have visitors looking to move here who have the opportunity to work from home. Boundary County is a community where people enjoy the living environment, especially for those who can work from home.
With the number of telecommuters in the county, we are continuing to look at how we can offer faster and more reliable Internet connections. Fatbeam, which is a mid-mile fiber optic company in Coeur d’Alene, is currently working on a mid-mile fiber optic line to Bonners Ferry. They are installing a Local Area Network for the school district, and their plan is to complete the mid-mile fiber optic line to Sandpoint. They are bringing a mid-mile fiber line from Athol, which will be connected to the one from Bonners Ferry sometime in the fall of 2019.
Once fiber is connected and Boundary County has the 1Gb fiber service, it will allow Internet service providers to use that mid-mile fiber to provide faster and more reliable service to our residents. One of the biggest advantages to our county of having fiber optic speed will be to the telecommuters who choose to live and work here. When telecommuters look at areas to live, reliable and fast Internet is at the top of their list.
Having fiber in our community will allow other companies and agencies currently in the county to access large databases and work on larger full-scale products that require higher Internet speed. Fiber optic service with symmetric speed will also allow us to market our county to companies who have need of that service. It will give us the opportunity to ensure that we can be a place that is not limited by its Internet speed but a place that offers the same speed that urban areas have to offer.
It might not be a game changer for bringing in mid-size companies, but it gives our county an opportunity to stay in the game and market to telecommuters. Telecommuters bring in a variety of valuable skill sets that can be used in startups and a variety of other ways in the county.
Q. Who is the largest employer in Boundary County? How many people do they employ?
A. The School District has 226 active employees and is the largest employer in Boundary County.
The other large employers in the county include Boundary County Community Hospital, U.S. Government (Border Patrol and Forest Service), Idaho Forest Group, Kootenai River Inn and Casino and Elk Mountain Farms.
We have several companies that employ from two to 50 people. The county is fairly diverse in types of companies, but the wood product industry, wood value added and wood by-products make up the largest segment of employment. Other segments include medical labs, manufacturing, professional services and e-commerce. We continue to see small startup companies, and the county continues to pursue companies that will diversify our workforce.
Q. Are you aware of any new businesses coming to the area?
A. Several new businesses started this past year. We have had an e-commerce business start in the county in addition to restaurants, auto body repair, agricultural and farm animal meat providers. There have been other companies who have looked into bringing their business here, but most want a ready-to-go building for their operations. We have very few buildings that meet the specifications these companies require for their manufacturing operations. Most small to midsize companies do not want to build a plant for moving their operations. They are looking to move now with their employees.
Most of the small manufacturers do not want to get into a building project before they move. Most want to lease or purchase a building that is ready made for their operations. Having buildings in place for manufacturers is a risky undertaking for most land owners in rural counties.
So, like many places in our area of the country, Bonners Ferry is being discovered. While we may want to keep the secret of this piece of paradise to ourselves, there is no doubt that it is a benefit to our local economy!