Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Economic partnership loses managing director

Rice starts new non-profit

Express Staff Writer

Jima Rice

Less than a year since its inception, the Wood River Economic Partnership is in the process of selecting a new managing director, as the nonprofit's founder, Jima Rice, stepped down from the position on Nov. 30.

Rice stated in a news release on Dec. 4 that she was asked to resign by the board of directors due to budget issues resulting from difficulties in recruiting members and the ensuing inability to pay her salary.

The economic partnership, known as WREP, was formed in March, following a suggestion from former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium and Ketchum resident Alan Blinken that there was a need for a valley-wide economic development council. This need translated into a lengthy list of goals, including employee recruitment, regional economic planning, and business attraction and funding.

WREP is designated as a 501(c)(6) non-profit organization, similar to that of a chamber of commerce or real estate board, donations to which are not tax-deductible.

Rice, who has run her own management consulting firm since 1983, said during an interview on Monday that this means WREP's income is based largely on membership dues and government support, as exemplified by the $10,000 received from the city of Sun Valley.

Despite an initial influx of funding, Rice said the downturn in the local economy, likely influenced by last winter's poor snowfall and the Castle Rock Fire during the summer, led to a decrease in donations.

Doug Brown, a vice-chairman on WREP's board of directors, has taken over as the organization's public contact pending the selection of a new managing director and explained changes that will be part of this transition.

"We're reorganizing along a narrower list of priorities," Brown said on Monday. "We've taken over 10 and reduced it to five."

In a news release issued by WREP on Dec. 7, the priorities listed were to:

- Lobby local government for a business friendly environment

- Advocate and participate in regional economic analysis and planning

- Support hotel development and other tourism amenities valley-wide

- Support the creation of affordable workforce housing

- Support Wood River Ride Share (now Mountain Rides) and others working to solve local transportation problems

In the news release, WREP Chairman Steve Mills praised Rice for her work with the organization.

"Dr. Rice has been instrumental in virtually everything that WREP has achieved to date," Mills stated.

This includes a contract from Sun Valley that confirmed WREP's goals to create a second-home owner economic support campaign and to implement an employee recruitment strategy, as well as organizing a young professionals group and opening dialogue by hosting economic-related speakers.

In Monday's interview, Brown was asked if Rice's departure from the partnership was a cause for concern or indicative of potential financial trouble.

"It's actually quite the contrary. We're reaching out and getting unanimous enthusiasm and commitment," Brown said. "WREP will be a tremendous story in 2008."

To this end, Brown said the partnership will hold a meeting in January for both its members and the public to discuss its goals. The exact date of the meeting hasn't been set.

Meanwhile, Rice demonstrated determination to further her goal of economic improvement in the valley by creating another non-profit named Jigsaw.

By providing networking events, educational seminars, and support for business incubation, Rice hopes her newest endeavor will assist in creating an economic environment conducive to the success of small businesses.

"I'm stubborn," Rice replied when asked why she was starting Jigsaw after the challenges she encountered with WREP. "We need a broad economic base to survive—we can't be a one-horse town dependent on the Sun Valley Co."

Rather than focusing on an economy driven by tourism, Rice said Jigsaw and her firm, Rice Consulting, will work to make the valley an attractive place for different businesses, whether that be money management, software development, or healthcare.

Rice, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, said that Jigsaw's designation as 501(c)(3) non-profit allows for a wider source of funding, including tax-deductible donations, as well as grants.

While Rice said her new creation won't take the same interest in lobbying local governments as WREP, she explained that help from the public sector is imperative.

"Everyone's working in their own little niche," Rice said. "I believe Jigsaw can work, but question the ability of the valley's various public officials and groups to work together."

She said that while this has started somewhat, as exemplified by Ketchum's Community Development Corporation, the city's need to take a more proactive role in economic growth, especially by supporting new businesses through the planning and zoning process.

Rice said that Jigsaw and WREP have priorities that are compatible rather than competing, and, thus, will be able to work in conjunction when appropriate.

"In the end, it's worked out very well," Rice said.

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