Andrew Mentzer is executive director of the West Central Mountains Economic Development Council, a McCall-based organization that is striving to improve economic development in the rural central Idaho county that includes Cascade, Donnelly, and McCall.
Mentzer has a community planning certificate and a master’s in public administration and has worked in a large variety of settings. He ran a youth hostel in downtown Idaho for three years and also worked as a planner for Ada County Highway Department and then with the iGem program at the Idaho Department of Commerce. He did stints in marketing with the Stoltz Marketing Group and with the STAR motorcycle safety program, has ridden a motorcycle most of the way around the world, and now has a position as the apprenticeship outreach coordinator at the College of Western Idaho. Meanwhile, he’s on the board of Midas Gold Inc., a company that plans to open a gold mine near Yellow Pine.
Mentzer’s main job with the West Central Mountains Economic Development Council, which he started a year ago, is to promote business retention and expansion initiatives in Valley County, a scenic area that runs from west of the Tamarack Ski Area to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, and about 60 miles from south of Smith’s Ferry to just north of McCall. The area’s population is about 10,000, with 4,000 residents in McCall and 1,000 in Cascade. The organization includes the New Meadows Valley in Adams County. Idaho Business Review spent some time with Mentzer learning about his work and the region. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were you hired to do in Valley County?
There are four pillars that we subscribe to: prosperity, jobs, housing, and assets and infrastructure. So, for example, things like broadband are assets and infrastructure, so I’ll be working next year to bolster broadband so businesses can run without huge service gaps.
I’ll reach out to 80 businesses each year, and go face-to-face with 70 percent of them. This year, in the last two months, I’ve met with 34 businesses.
The Heartland Inn in New Meadows is looking to do some renovation of their historic building. So for the last month I’ve been networking with the state historical society, the Idaho Historic Trust Fund, and other resources. Long story short, I came upon a 20 percent tax credit from the national park service where the owner can get a tax credit.
I’m writing a grant for a medical cluster to train three CNAs from the Cascade High School and two paramedics. We’re building a case for vocational training.
Isn’t being on the Midas Gold board a conflict of interest, given how controversial it is?
Not according to my attorney. Since I am a contractor I have the professional latitude to do both. If something comes up with Midas Gold, if they are interested in a tax incentive or something like that, I hand it off to the Department of Commerce.
Midas Gold reached out to me because they were looking for people who could see the benefits of having a restoration component in the mining site. As a fisherman myself, I saw the value in that. Better to have them at the table than on the table.
Does Valley County have the challenges of other resort areas, such as affordable housing, skills training, and low-paying jobs?
We’re trying to buck that trend. There are some really good paying jobs in hospitality. You can have a career that is more than sufficient to raise a family at Brundage Mountain, at Shore Lodge, at Jug Mountain Ranch. There is light manufacturing, a lot of small-scale farming and ranching, and a ton of high-quality service industry-type jobs. There are healthcare jobs with St. Luke’s in McCall. And the reality of Midas is when they receive their permitting, provided that all goes to plan, they’ll be providing 500 jobs.
It’s not just seasonal work. We are trying to create some training models that get at that basically.
Airbnb units and VRBO in McCall are a real problem. Seventy-one percent of the units in Valley County are second home units. When you have that disparity in your volumes, how do you ever provide for local housing?
The solutions are extremely local.
How can you help?
We promote regionalism. We’re one of the major conduits to make sure Cascade is talking to McCall, New Meadows is talking to Donnelly, so there isn’t a duplication of effort and there could be efficiencies.
A lot of times, small mountain towns adjacent to one another can find themselves competing, which is fine, but you should also be collaborating where those opportunities arise so you have synergy there.
Valley County’s health ranking is off the charts, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. What’s up with that?
This year, they are the No. 1 longest-lived people in America. Why? If I had the answer to that, I would be a billionaire. I have a theory that it’s fresh air.
There is also local buzz that because of the small scale of the agriculture industry, there isn’t the proliferation of chemicals in the soils.
We’re not going to ever compete for big agriculture-type things like you’ll see in Twin Falls because of how much infrastructure that requires. We’re looking for small to medium businesses. You’ll see us being very competitive in those spaces. Right now we’re focused on fortifying local industry.
We’re going into strategic planning in December and the general direction is workforce development, fortifying our open space and recreational access, continuing to work on housing, and broadband. With broadband, we’ve been trying to borrow from the model in Ammon.
Broadband is a very political issue; you have large companies that have ownership of the fiber and they would rather maintain that ownership at the expense of capacity in some cases, where the other model is to have the infrastructure owned by the public or located in the public domain. A local improvement district allows people to opt into that in Ammon.
It’s a beautiful place and with connectivity, you can in fact live in Valley County and work online.