Dana Kirkham, who took the helm of Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho last month, has a new vision for the organization.
“We want to further our mission, which is to promote economic development here in the region,” said Board member Kevin Koplin, an accountant with Cooper Norman. “With Dana’s background in public service, we think that’s a great fit. She’s demonstrated that she can rally and help people work together, and we think that’s a critical component of success.”
Kirkham, the former mayor of Ammon, said she plans to shift from the organization’s emphasis on marketing to planning a targeted strategy to provide specific, deliverable improvements to the local economy.
“When this organization was established, the main focus was to market the region,” she said. “I still think that ideally ends up being the main focus. But today, I think the cart is a little bit ahead of the horse. We haven’t effectively defined what we are and what we want to be. And when I say that, I mean actually using data points.”
REDI’s member communities are the cities of Ammon, Blackfoot, Chubbuck, Idaho Falls, Rexburg, Shelley, Ucon as well as Bingham and Bonneville counties.
Is eastern Idaho a tech corridor? An agricultural area? An energy industry development area?
“Maybe we are all of those things, but the truth is we don’t know what we are,” she said. “So my focus in the first 12 months is to slow down, back up and actually put together an economic development strategic plan for the region.”
Kirkham said “what we are and what we want to be” are questions the organization needs to find quantitative answers to, rather than focusing on marketing. Understanding, in a comprehensive way, the kinds of businesses, workers and other assets in the region will allow the group to focus its efforts in areas that will produce results.
It’s a data-driven approach, Kirkham said, that will put less emphasis on messaging and more on creating an “ecosystem” in which business development and expansion can thrive. The idea of fostering a business ecosystem comes from looking at major business centers around the country, from Detroit as the center of automotive manufacturing during the mid 20th century to Silicon Valley as the center of the tech sector.
“Why are they successful? They’re successful because of a thriving ecosystem,” Kirkham said. “Everything they need is close at hand. Look especially at Silicon Valley, because those companies could do their work off of a mountaintop somewhere. It’s crowded. It’s gotten expensive. Why do they stay? It’s because they have all of their needs met.”
When Silicon Valley businesses need workers, they know there’s a skilled workforce to draw from. If a software developer needs a custom server rack, there are many companies available to provide them. A large number of specialist companies cooperate and compete in ways that push growth.
REDI board member Dan Cravens, a former regional economist with the Idaho Department of Labor, said clustering effects like this are well recognized among economists.
“In sustainable economies, ecosystems are very important,” Cravens said. “When you have a cluster of related successful industries, it tends to build upon itself. Those ecosystems create a better environment for sustainability and it helps get the workforce ready for jobs of that kind.”
Rural eastern Idaho has major differences with such urban centers, Kirkham said, but there’s a closer example that shows it can happen here too: the recent boom along Utah’s Wasatch Front.
The key to the Wasatch Front boom, Kirkham said, was planning. In the early 2000s, the Winter Olympics slated for Salt Lake City provided an opportunity to bring a lot of focus to the region. But to attract businesses, it was necessary to have a comprehensive plan.
Eastern Idaho, Kirkham said, features the nation’s leading nuclear energy lab and many associated companies, extensive wind energy development, hydropower facilities and solar manufacturing. It could be poised to become the “clean energy capital of the world.”
The region also benefits from the presence of major federal agencies, she said.
“In a lot of ways, they’re the anchor tenants,” Kirkham said. “Idaho National Laboratory, the Naval Reactors Facility and the FBI provide a level of expertise, credibility, innovation that you would not expect to find in a community this size. They open us to global opportunities.”
And, with the Wasatch Front overflowing, there are opportunities to draw business from the Beehive State.
“We have lower cost of living,” she said. “We have cheap land. We have water and cheap electricity.”
Kirkham said the next year is an opportunity for REDI to prove its worth.
“I am very sensitive to duplication of services and waste of dollars,” she said. “If the organization is not showing value, those dollars should go back to their communities. It’s important that REDI shows value, that it becomes a vital part of our community. We have some time to make that happen.”
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.