Annual summit highlights common strengths

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Much of the news lately describes divisions in our country and communities. But as the executive director for the Bonner County Economic Development Corporation, I have a different perspective. I have the privilege of getting to know the business leaders in our region and to see firsthand what we all have in common: a deep commitment to the people and way of life in northern Idaho.

To highlight our economic assets and engage in a constructive discussion about our future, BCEDC, the Boundary County Economic Council, the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce, the cities of Sandpoint and Ponderay, Idaho Department of Labor, and Headwaters Economics recently put on the second “What’s Happening Up North” economic summit. This event brought together business leaders, elected officials, and interested residents to talk about how to sustain a prosperous economy in northern Idaho.

Speakers at this year’s event — with the theme “Growing a Healthy Economy” — included leaders in health care and biotech, those engaged in land use planning and economic development, and those working to increase access to the outdoors for more people.

I came away from this year’s summit with two main lessons.

First, our rural character and quality of life is one of our greatest business assets, valued by lifelong residents and newcomers alike. Research from Headwaters Economics found that access to the outdoors is the most important factor in many residents’ decision to move to or stay in the area, ranking much higher than a specific job. Our quality of life keeps our committed residents and attracts the entrepreneurs who make Bonner and Boundary counties unique.

This is a difficult time for many rural places as businesses increasingly are moving to cities, becoming more automated, and employing fewer people. But as our keynote speaker Lt. Gov. Brad Little pointed out, innovation is our edge. Our strengths in health care and state-of-the-art sectors like biotech, aerospace, and software design, which are less likely to be automated, point to a bright economic future. We know that keeping these businesses and attracting new ones requires protecting the quality of life that brought many business leaders to this area.

Varying strategies can help protect this quality of life. Sandpoint Planning and Economic Development Director Aaron Qualls described the city’s goal of clustering development close to towns to preserve rural character and minimize the cost of providing services. Bonner County Commissioner Glen Bailey described the county’s efforts to make development approvals process more streamlined.

As people continue to move to this area, our towns and rural places will change. We need to anticipate these changes and make sure we do not lose what makes our area so special.

My second main lesson of the summit is the importance of investing in our residents’ health and education to sustain our workforce and stay competitive in a changing economy.

We heard from several organizations doing innovative work serving our communities. North Idaho College is participating in a statewide Healthcare Partnership to bring training in healthcare careers to northern Idaho through distance learning. Kaniksu Land Trust is working with health care providers on their ParkRx program to connect people to parks and trails, get them moving, and improve their health.

Next year’s summit will focus on education opportunities and needs in our area, from grade school to adult continuing education, to better understand how we can make sure our kids and older residents are well-prepared for a changing economy.

As we heard from the economists at the summit, rural places face many economic challenges. But this area has an advantage in our innovative industries and we need to work hard to maintain it. Business owners like Dana Jordan of Cascade Rescue, a featured business at the summit, want to be here because it is a great place to live, work, and do business.

So let’s keep investing in our residents’ health, making decisions that support the quality of life that brings people and keeps them here, and anticipating growing communities and a changing economy to help us keep our edge.

For details about What’s Happening Up North, its speakers, and links to their presentations, go online to whatshappeningupnorth.org.

Paul Kusche is the executive director for the Bonner County Economic Development Corporation and was an executive at Litehouse Foods for 16 years.

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