Facts on local growth

The ‘shoulder season’ is a sign of an unbalanced economy

By Jeremy Grimm
Reader Contributor

Ben, I appreciated the reflection provided in your opinion piece “Embrace the shoulder season… while we still can,” published on Sept. 1, 2022. You captured many of the observations of change that most longtime residents have witnessed, but calling life in the area in the past a “ripe cherry” and now a “sour mash” I believe requires some additional context and facts. 

First, you point to the potentially “terrifying” concerns of growth in the area. As you correctly reference U.S. Census data, Sandpoint has grown at an annual rate of 2.2% from 2010-2020. Putting this number in context with other fast-growing areas of the country helps to distinguish healthy growth from “terrifying” growth. Consider, if you will, the population growth of the following communities from 2020-2021: Georgetown, Texas, 10.5%; Queen Creek, Ariz., 8.9%; Buckeye, Ariz., 8.6%; Fort Myers, Fla., 6.8%; and, for a more local perspective, Meridian, Idaho, 5.2%; Caldwell, Idaho, 5.2%; and Nampa, Idaho, 5%.

To be clear, some of these locations are observing annual growth almost 500% faster than Sandpoint. Further, the 2.2% annual growth in Sandpoint over the past decade is actually slightly below the forecasted growth of 2.5% that we utilized in developing the 2009 Sandpoint Comprehensive plan (see: Sandpoint Comprehensive Plan, Chapter 2, Page 5). 

Finally, most economists agree that a “healthy” annual rate of economic growth is between 2% and 3%, resulting in more money flowing into the economy, more jobs becoming available and overall employment growth. These are all critical signs of economic health.

Since you raised the issue of an increase in non-labor income in Bonner County, I thought it would be helpful to also review the dynamics and components of the area labor market. As published by Samuel Wolkenhauer, labor economist at the Idaho Department of Labor, employment growth in Bonner County over the past decade has not been equal in all professions. 

For example, from 2011 to 2021 in Bonner County, Natural Resources and Mining employment has increased by just 29 jobs, or 0.8% annually with annual wage growth of 2.3%. Trade, Transport and Utility employment (which includes retail) has increased by 314 jobs, or 1% annually, with annual wage growth of 1.7%. Leisure and Hospitality employment has increased by 508 jobs, or 3% annually, with annual wage growth of 6.2%. Information employment has increased by 73 jobs, or 3.2% annually, with annual wage growth of 8.9%; and, finally, those associated with what you call “land rapers” — construction workers — have seen job growth of 550, or 8.4% annually, and 5.4% annual wage growth. 

So, some types of area workers and families are benefiting from the “sour mash,” as you call it.

The final facts that I would like to call attention to deal with employment and where workers live in comparison to where their jobs are located. The U.S. Census has a great web-based tool called “On The Map” that allows one to compare this change over a number of years. 

When comparing 2010 to 2019 (most recent data available) we see that for the Sandpoint Micropolitan Area there has been little change in the percentage of where workers live in comparison to their job location. In 2010, the data shows that 74%, or 7,446 workers, in the Sandpoint Micropolitan Area also lived in the area. By 2019 this number had dropped to 69.6%, or 7,925 workers, who live and work in the area. 

Although I agree that this reduction is not a positive sign, still, almost three of every four workers in Sandpoint are able to live in or around Sandpoint. Contrast this to locations with truly out-of-balance workflow such as Ketchum, Aspen, Whitefish and Jackson Hole, respectively, with just 6.7%, 22%, 23.9% and 25.5% of area workers able to live in their location of employment. 

In closing, I’d like to pitch an idea that I raised recently during an Idaho Economic Advisory Council meeting (I am currently appointed as Region 1 representative on the council). I think you and others could get behind it. Idaho charges a 2% Travel and Convention Tax, which is applied to occupants of hotels, private campgrounds and vacation rentals. A significant portion of total collections are returned to regions (Sandpoint Chamber was awarded $246,292 in 2022) with the intent that these funds be used for, you guessed it, the promotion of further tourism. 

In light of that fact, as you say, “The secret is out” about Sandpoint, do we really need to continue to expend all of these funds annually in an attempt to attract even more tourists to the area? What if as an alternative the funds could rather be utilized to support workforce housing in the area, thereby helping to support the worker housing needs induced by the very tourists who are eating up much of our housing stock as they stay in vacation rentals? 

If properly leveraged over a period of years, these funds could more than support the construction of dozens of housing units, which could help support increased employment in specific tourism sectors like dining, leisure and hospitality. 

Ben, in a way I do hope that the shoulder season in Sandpoint eventually disappears. It is a reflection of an unbalanced local economy overly reliant on tourism, where the prevailing annual wage is just $22,418 and often the work is part-time or with limited off-season hours. For my children and others, I hope the future of the Sandpoint region includes growth in high-skilled employment opportunities like those found at Kochava, Daher, Litehouse, Bonner General, Encoder, Cygnus, Diedrich and others.

Jeremy Grimm was the Sandpoint Planning Director from 2007-2015 and currently owns Whiskey Rock Planning + Consulting in Sandpoint.

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