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Like the rest of Idaho, Coeur d’Alene struggles with growth

photo of gynii gilliam

Gynii Gilliam, who heads the Coeur d’Alene Economic Development Council, says she is stymied by a lack of skilled workforce. Photo by Sharon Fisher

COEUR D’ALENE — In many ways, this city’s economic development situation is like Boise’s: Rampant growth and a lack of workforce and affordable housing – with the added bonus of a state with no income tax and a $12 minimum wage next door.

“By percentage, we were No. 1 and 2 with Boise,” in terms of growth, said Gynii Gilliam, president and CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Area Economic Development Corp.

Historically, Coeur d’Alene’s economic activity was in resource extraction, ranging from timber to mining to agriculture. As time has gone on, those industries have declined. Gilliam’s organization was established in 1987 by major regional companies such as the Hagadone Corp. and Avista Power. Cities in the region such as Post Falls, Hayden and Rathdrum, as well as Kootenai County itself, also contribute, she said. The organization helps attract new businesses and expand existing ones, she said.

With Washington and its $12 minimum wage next door, wages on the Idaho side of the border tend to match that level, Gilliam said. In fact, unemployment on the Idaho side is lower than on the Eastern Washington side. If the wage differential is under a dollar less an hour, Idaho workers probably won’t bother driving to Washington for it, “but for five dollars’ difference, you’re going to make the drive,” she said.

That goes for higher salaries as well. Coeur d’Alene hospitals have to keep up with Spokane salary rates, or they lose personnel, Gilliam said. Between that and the tight labor market in general, hospitals in Coeur d’Alene are short of all kinds of staff, not just medical.

“Hospitals are like a little town,” Gilliam said, requiring staffers such as janitors and food preparers as well as doctors and nurses. Some hospitals in town have hundreds of openings, she said.

Technical industries, ranging from industrial machining to pilots to cybersecurity, are also short and have hundreds of openings.

“Everyone’s hitting every possible way to list their jobs,” she said.

Gilliam has also been working with regional education providers such as North Idaho College (NIC) on developing the workforce employers need, such as nurses and manufacturing workers. Through a partnership with the University of Idaho, NIC now has a four-year computer science program that people can complete without leaving Coeur d’Alene.

“Everything is going to computer science,” Gilliam said. “Everything requires data and technology.”

Gilliam is also looking at ways to encourage retired people to re-enter  to the workforce. The question is how to find them and learn what they are interested in, she said.

“A lot of us are healthier,” she said. “You’re retired at 60. ‘I’ve read all the books. I need to do something more.’ We need to figure out how we can tap into that market.”

One step is teaching that population how to apply for jobs in an era when applications are online and many interviews are via video, Gilliam said.

“They can do the work,” she said. “They can’t get past the application process.”

Housing is also an issue.

“We’re short of homes in the $250,000 to $375,000 range,” Gilliam said. “They say it’s a buyer’s market over $400,000, but a seller’s market under that.”

Even new homes built to order are nine months out, she said.

Coeur d’Alene also lacks move-in-ready industrial space.

“We have property, but there’s no buildings on it,” Gilliam said. “When companies are looking for a place to move, they want it available.”

Vacancies are usually snapped up within three months, she said. At the same time, businesses are balking at some new construction in the Post Falls area because it is more expensive than existing buildings.

“People are used to a certain lease rate,” Gilliam said. “The market hasn’t caught up with the new numbers yet.”

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