These days, former Ammon Mayor Dana Kirkham spends a lot of time on her phone, or pinballing between coffee shops.
Since vacating city hall last week, Kirkham has focused on meeting stakeholders within the science, manufacturing and education organizations that freckle eastern Idaho in order to better grasp the challenges they face.
It’s now her job as Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho’s first full-time science, technology and research (STAR) director.
REDI markets the region’s counties and cities in the name of economic development. Kirkham, who started working part-time for REDI in September, will advocate for the science and technology interests that prop up eastern Idaho’s economy.
The role’s basic outline has existed for months, but as a full-time employee, Kirkham now has the chance to expand her reach and mold the STAR director position into something specific in order to grow the region’s science and technology sector. And she won’t have a room full of department directors to help her.
“I always love to build, so that’s what this is — building something that hasn’t existed before,” Kirkham said. “But I do feel the weight of expectation. I’m not stepping in with a staff of 15 to say ‘OK gang this is what we’re going to do.’ It’s going to sink or swim, and I kind of love that challenge.”
From the time she was elected Ammon’s mayor in 2013, Kirkham dismissed the idea of running for a second term. She said it’s important to “stay in motion” in order to prevent stagnation.
Besides, career politicking can cause someone to lose sight of the reason they were elected, Kirkham said, which is to improve the community.
“There’s too much opportunity for pride and ego to start to win out. It’s healthy to step out, to be humbled a little bit, to feel uncertain, to be afraid, to re-evaluate and rise up to the next thing. To get comfortable is a dangerous game to play,” she said. “Of course, anything you put your heart and soul into is hard to let go of. But it was more than time.”
Kirkham heard about the STAR director role months ago as an Ammon representative in REDI meetings.
The position, created with assistance from Idaho National Laboratory and other industry partners, is vital to leveraging eastern Idaho’s most valuable resources, REDI Executive Director Jan Rogers said.
That includes universities and the regional presence of five federal programs — including the U.S. Navy, FBI and departments of Defense, Energy and Homeland Security — and also private industry. There’s industrial manufacturing companies, such as Idaho Steel and Premier Technologies, as well as agriculture-related companies, such as Spudnik and Simplot.
Just as food manufacturing is foundational to the Magic Valley’s economy, science and technology make eastern Idaho run, said Rogers, who marketed southern Idaho before moving east.
“We really are an innovation corridor. and that’s the core of our economy moving forward, Not just because of the federal programs, but also the businesses they support and vice versa,” she said.
Before becoming mayor, Kirkham spent eight years on Ammon’s city council. A child of parents who worked for the CIA, she also spent three years doing support work for the agency in Langley, Va.
The combination of elected and federal experience makes Kirkham well-suited to the STAR director position, Rogers said.
“To expedite the economic growth in that core sector, you need somebody who understands the whole region, and is recognized and respected. She happens to be a really technically smart and savvy as well — she understands things about 10 feet over my head,” Rogers said.
REDI, now 2 years old, markets all of eastern Idaho’s 14 counties together as a means to attract talent and business to the region. The idea is that one unified force is stronger than individual cities and counties making separate pitches.
Presiding over diminutive Ammon showed Kirkham the importance of partnerships and “political capital.”
“If you advocate by yourself it’s probably not going to go very far in a city of 15,000. But if you can convince all the players around you that whatever policy you’re advocating for is good, now you have a shot at moving the needle,” she said. “It’s the same philosophy for this. If we come together and market our region and work together there’s far more ability to succeed.”
Kirkham said it’s a relief to finish working for Ammon and finally fully wrap her head around the STAR director role.
Already adverse to sleep — “I hate to waste time and I hate to miss anything” — Kirkham wakes up in the middle of the night to jot down ideas. Eventually her thoughts are transferred to a white board where things are “starting to make sense.”
“I’ve given myself 12 months to say there better be some kind of product,” Kirkham said.
What kind of product may that be? A grassroots organization or network that can support science, technology and research needs at the dial of a phone.
More than CEOs, Kirkham said such a network should include the average INL scientist, hospital tech or graduate student. People at the “tip of your finger” who can write letters and make phone calls if a company needs to be sold on doing business in Idaho, or if the state Legislature is considering a harmful bill or regulation.
“A lot of my day-to-day is spent getting in front of people and trying to say ‘This is really important to our region, and when it’s in jeopardy it will affect your life and this is why you should get involved,’” Kirkham said. “We’re trying to build this ability to say ‘When you’re messing with our industry we’ll come back at you.’”
Though most of eastern Idaho’s largest cities along the Rexburg-Pocatello corridor have already joined REDI, there’s continued expansion to achieve, Rogers said. She expects communities in Bannock, Jefferson and Madison counties to join as the organization draws more business to the region.
Bringing additional cities into the fold and fostering greater cohesion is vital to making REDI a “respected and relied upon” regional voice, Kirkham said.
“To say the region operates in unison is an overstep; we aren’t there yet,” she said. “There always will be an element of competition, but really getting us all on the same page is kind of a challenge. It takes time and data and people want to see that this philosophy is successful.”
If she were to achieve that, and in the process help develop a place where she can possibly see her grandkids reside: an environment where “generations can stay and be successful and not have to compromise on quality of life, salary or culture,” then could Kirkham finally get some sleep?
“Probably not — there’d be something else to do,” she said.
Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 208-542-6762.