COEUR d'ALENE — Idaho Gov. Butch Otter delivered a teaser to local business leaders on Wednesday.
Otter told 249 Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce members attending his lunch speech at the Best Western Plus Coeur d'Alene Inn that he'd just met with officials of a high-tech company who are eyeing North Idaho with sweeping aspirations.
"It would turn the five northern counties into a Silicon Valley," he said. "I tell you that there are real possibilities."
Otter didn't elaborate on details of that possibility, but turned heads when he briefly alluded to it.
The governor said the state's economy is in "great shape."
"Economic optimism in the state of Idaho is rampant," he said. "Why wouldn't it be?"
Otter said he remembers when the unemployment rate in Kootenai County was 17 percent in 2010. It is now at 3.8 percent.
"That's a tremendous achievement," he said.
Otter pointed to a recent national survey by Thumbtack.com that ranked Idaho third for being friendly to small businesses. More than 13,000 small business owners participated in the survey. Factors included ease of hiring, regulations, health and safety, tax code, licensing and more.
"Companies wanting to come here are looking for stability and predictability," Otter said.
Workforce development needs to be a continual focus because there are plenty of jobs statewide that can't be filled, Otter said.
"North Idaho has done a fantastic job with workforce development," he said. "If we can't build a workforce, there's not much sense in building a building."
Otter said he’s proud that North Idaho has diversified its economy from the traditional industries of agriculture, mining and timber. He added that wage increases are expected in the future.
"There are beautiful signs on the horizon," he said. "We can keep building on this as long as we keep focused on diversification."
Otter said he likes the way western states have taken over managing forestlands to keep the threat of costly damage of wildfires at bay.
"Instead of having to put out the damn fire, I said, 'Why don't you let me manage that ground so it won't have a fire?'" he said. "We can expect another book — ‘The Second Big Burn’ — if we don't do something. It would be a book that I wouldn't want to write."
For example, Otter said, three fires in south-central Idaho in 2011 scorched nearly 1 million acres and devastated watersheds.
"We've moved on all fronts to make sure Idaho is a better place to live," he said, adding that wildfires can also wreak havoc on recreation and tourism.
One meeting attendee asked Otter if highway infrastructure will be a priority in the future.
Otter said he has tried to emphasize to legislators that making maintenance a priority is necessary to save money over the long haul.
"Deferred maintenance is deficit spending," he said.
Otter said he believes it would be a good idea to spend 10 percent of the value of Idaho's roads (about $900 million) each year to maintain them.
"If I was in the private sector, I'd set aside 10 percent per year for maintenance and repair," he said.
Otter, whose term will end in just over a year, thanked attendees for a wonderful ride and for residents' recent warm wishes as he recovered this summer from two back surgeries, then post-surgery infection.
"I've been richly blessed in my life," he said. "This is the best job I've ever had. I can see why so many people want it."