More than 250 valley residents and community leaders gathered in the Sun Valley Inn’s Limelight Room for the eighth annual Sun Valley Economic Summit on Monday, seeking answers to a variety of questions.
With several keynote speakers and three core discussions, the fundraiser for Sun Valley Economic Development mirrored the nonprofit’s mission: to educate businesses and communities in the Wood River Valley about relevant economic trends and encourage entrepreneurship.
Economist Robert Spendlove, also a Republican member of the Utah House of Representatives and senior vice president of Zions Bank, kicked off the summit with a presentation outlining the status of regional, statewide and national economies.
In his discussion, entitled “Bridging the Gaps in Our Resort Community,” Spendlove frequently ventured into the gray areas of economic and demographic trends.
While some statewide patterns have been great for other counties in Idaho, they’re not necessarily having a positive impact in Blaine County, he said.
Take Idaho’s population growth rate: It’s three times the national average right now, with an exponential increase in migration to Custer and Valley counties. But Blaine County has seen hardly any population growth, especially as hotspots such as Twin Falls and Boise yank away labor.
“A lot of people have been attracted to Idaho, but talking to elected officials in Jerome, they’re saying the same thing—that Twin [Falls] is pulling labor out,” he said. “It is constricting Blaine County’s ability to grow.”
He added that up until recently, baby boomers have had a stronghold on the labor force, which he defined as the number of people over 16 who are actively working or job-hunting. But now, they’re starting to retire, throwing off the balance between service-consuming and service-providing ages.
“Ten thousand baby boomers are retiring every day and will continue to do so for the next 10 years,” he said. “Just think of the silver tsunami washing up on the shores of Boca Raton, Florida.”
To engage its aging population, Blaine County has to adapt, he said.
“It’s not the strongest species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It’s our ability to change that makes us strong and resilient—and communities are the same way,” he said.
Plenty has already changed in the last 10 years. Increased income growth and home values are one example. Since 2009, Idaho has shown the second highest personal income growth in the nation (7.4 percent), and home values have increased over $100,000.
While that’s good news for homeowners, Spendlove said an oversaturated housing market is not so great for lower-income folks looking for a home.
Likewise, low unemployment may look good on paper—but it isn’t always good news.
At about 3.5 percent, unemployment is the lowest it’s been since December 1969, Spendlove said. That translates to about 0.86 people per one job application, compared to the six per job application he was seeing in 2009.
Every time Spendlove has seen unemployment bottom out, a recession has surely followed within one to two years. But in the moment, he can’t be sure when the bottom will come.
“They say economic forecasting is like driving a car blindfolded, listening to someone giving directions from the back window,” he said. “We don’t know if the unemployment rate will start to turn up again or not.”
To make forecasting it more difficult, tried-and-tested economic laws are not behaving the way they should, either. While unemployment is low across the county, wage growth has mysteriously fallen from 3.5 percent in 2008 to 2.9 percent in 2019.
“This should not be happening,” he said.
Nationally, it’s less pronounced, though there are signs the boom may be losing steam. In 2018, an average of 220,000 jobs were added every month, and 136,000 were added last month.
“You can really see that slowing occurring in our job market,” he said. “To keep that 136,000 in perspective, it takes about 100,000 jobs growing every month just to keep up with population growth.”
Debt, though, continues to grow, and Spendlove has major concerns with the trillions of dollars in car and student loan debt that young Americans have amassed in recent years.
American debt from auto loans is up to $1.3 trillion, Spendlove said, and student loans debt is rising at an even faster rate, surpassing $1.5 trillion this year.
“I don’t believe the next recession will be another housing crisis,” he said. “It will be because people are stuck with enormous debt.”
Before wrapping up, he touched on business investment in an era of chaos and uncertainty.
“People are looking at the trade war with China, wondering what Trump will tweet about next,” he said. “They don’t know what’s going to happen.”
A panel of three young valley residents—business owner Jacob Frehling, Ketchum City Councilwoman Courtney Hamilton and YMCA Membership Director Colleen Quindlen—supplemented Spendlove’s data with stories from a different generation’s perspective.
People are working four or five jobs because they want to live here, Hamilton said, and cost barriers continue to exist. Other resorts with cheaper options—like affordable ski passes—are siphoning away young residents.
Hamilton suggested incorporating a program to help new transplants forge connections, modeled after the Steamboat Springs Young Professionals Network.
“The biggest thing we can do is make our community welcoming to young professionals,” she said. “It starts with some sort of funding, maybe through valley chambers or the Ketchum Innovation Center.”
Quindlen and Frehling suggested simple changes to help Ketchum’s under-35 demographic get involved with city politics, like moving town hall meetings to more accessible locations and changing City Council meeting times to accommodate those working 9-to-5 jobs.
They also suggested bringing back music events such as the 48 Straight festival, which could help invigorate nightlife and attract a younger demographic.
“How do we convince the older generation that concerts are good for the economy and young people?” Frehling asked.
That remains an open question, but an important one, Quindlen said.
“The Nightmare on Main Street event was a step in the right direction,” she said of last weekend’s Halloween bash. “It’s extremely hard for young people to meet others in their age group.”
In between the panel of young valley residents and Spendlove’s presentation, Lowell Apelbaum—CEO and founder of Vista Cova, a firm that has partnered with Fortune 500 companies to increase connection among employees—delivered an interactive keynote address, “Building Networks to Bridge Our Gaps.”
And, other panel discussions leaned heavily on locals, including “Building Regional Partnerships” with State Sen. Michelle Stennett and Mayors Ned Burns (Bellevue) and Shawn Barigar (Twin Falls), and “The Nonprofit Role in Building Community Bridges” with Mike Fenello (St. Luke’s) and Tricia Swartling (The Advocates).