Blaine County is a vast place, where seas of sagebrush-covered plain give way to a mosaic of forested mountains, alpine lakes and rugged peaks.
It covers 2,650 square miles, an area more than twice the size of the Rhode Island and slightly larger than Delaware. About 78 percent of the county is public property, land that offers world-class recreational opportunities but few windows for traditional economic development.
That, and the lay of the land, has pushed most of the development into the Wood River Valley corridor, but there is still plenty of breathing room for the county’s estimated 21,146 residents.
So, who are we, this small population of people who live in the shadow of the Smoky, Pioneer and Boulder mountains? While every resident of the county has his or her own set of stories, data compiled by the economic development organization Sustain Blaine provides some quick answers. Since settlers first came to the valley in the 1800s, the land has essentially stayed the same, but as the decades have passed, the community has become decidedly more diverse—and more privileged—than the first families of the frontier would ever have imagined.
Blaine County’s population is not growing like it once did, data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates. In fact, the county’s 2012 population showed a decrease of about 200 residents since 2010, when it was estimated at 21,378. That’s a major shift from the population trends prior to the Great Recession. The county’s population nearly doubled from 1980 to 2000, and then continued to climb steadily until the economic downturn in 2008.
Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen, who lives in a predominantly agricultural area south of Bellevue, said he believes the leveling off of the population is a direct response to the loss of jobs—particularly in construction—from the recession, as well as the corresponding crash of the housing market.
“Growth will resume, likely at a more measured pace, because this is a popular place offering a high quality of life,” Schoen said. “I think demand will remain and grow for lower-wage-level, service-sector jobs, although even these were impacted by the recession, so they are not invulnerable.”
In 2012, Hailey had the highest population, with 7,920 residents (down slightly from 7,964 in 2010). Ketchum had the second highest population, with about 2,700 residents, followed by Bellevue (about 2,000), Sun Valley (about 1,400), and Carey (about 600).
According to the Census Bureau, about 91 percent of county residents in 2012 had a high school diploma, while just over 45 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. A little more than 15 percent of the population was born in a foreign country.
The Sun Valley region has sometimes been criticized for being “too old,” and Census Bureau data indicates that Blaine County’s population has indeed gotten older since 2000. In 2000, people ages 65 and older made up 7.8 percent of the county’s population. That figure rose to about 11.6 percent in 2010 and then to 14 percent in 2012. However, the percentage of residents ages 5 to 17 also went up, from 18 percent in 2000 to 23.3 percent in 2012. The median age in the county is 40.4 years old.
The data indicates that Sun Valley has the most residents ages 65 and older and the fewest ages 20 and under. Carey and Bellevue have the largest percentages of young people, with Hailey not far behind. In all three of those cities, people ages 34 and younger make up about half of the population. Twenty-somethings are fairly evenly dispersed throughout the valley, with the fewest in unincorporated Blaine County. The highest percentage of the 50-64 age group lives in unincorporated Blaine County. Ketchum, the data shows, is fairly evenly divided by age.
Race & Ethnicity
Blaine County is still predominantly white, but has become populated increasingly by Latinos, Census Bureau data indicates. In 2000, when the total population of the county was 18,991, the percentage of Latinos was 10.7 percent. In 2010, when the population was 21,378, the percentage had risen to 20 percent. In the 2012 census, the Latino population had risen to 20.3 percent. Meanwhile, whites made up 77.6 percent of the population in 2012, Native Americans made up 1.5 percent and blacks .03 percent.
The highest percentage of Latino residents is in Bellevue, followed closely by Hailey. Latinos make up nearly 30 percent of the population in those cities. By correspondence, Hailey and Bellevue have the lowest percentages of whites, just above 50 percent. The fewest Latinos live in Sun Valley, which is predominantly white.
From 2007 to 2011, the Census Bureau estimated that an average of 18.7 percent of the households in Blaine County spoke a first language other than English.
Schoen said the Latino population “works damn hard” and adds to the ethnic diversity of the county, but noted that he believes the community will have to continue to work diligently to integrate Spanish-speaking residents into the education system and job market.
“Social, cultural and ethnic diversity is valued in Blaine County, so I have a positive view of this trend,” he said. “It also reflects the world outside of us, which makes our place more real than exclusive, as some contend.”
Blaine County does have considerable wealth, but perhaps not as much as some people think. The median household income in the county is $51,728, compared to about $47,000 for the state of Idaho. However, the Census Bureau estimates that 7.8 percent of the county’s residents live below the poverty level.
Surprisingly, Census Bureau data indicates that Carey and Bellevue have the highest household median incomes in the county, followed by Ketchum, Sun Valley and Hailey. The figures do not provide an altogether complete snapshot of incomes, however, as they do not include income from dividends, interest or “unearned income” and are based on differing household sizes. Sun Valley has the highest proportion of household income, with 40 percent bringing in more than $75,000 per year.
“People here are interested and motivated to gaze above the horizon,” Schoen said. “This creates opportunities for wealth creation. At the same time, we have many low-income families and significant poverty, not all based in the Latino community. We cannot forget this and that is one reason for us to consider new kinds of economic opportunities, including continuing education alternatives, in this post-recession leg of our history.
“One of Blaine County’s greatest strengths is our ability and willingness to work especially hard to find ways and means to balance economic health with environmental and social health.”