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Idaho Business Out Loud interview: Andrew Mentzer, executive director of the West Central Mountains Economic Development Council

When most people think of McCall, they picture beautiful mountain vistas and a clear blue lake, but the region is also home to a booming business ecosystem.

Recently, the community opened a new coworking facility, CUB McCall, to provide a home for startups and nonprofits. Faster broadband internet is on the way through the Rapid McCall program, which will offer up to 1 gigabit per second service by next summer.

McCall’s downtown revitalization plan is also nearing completion, and a new $40 million hospital, St. Luke’s McCall, is under construction. The retail and real estate sectors are also flourishing.

The Idaho Business Out Loud podcast recently sat down with Andrew Mentzer, executive director of the West Central Mountains Economic Development Council, to learn more about the area’s progress in 2019, as well as projections for 2020.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Today I want to talk about two things with you: what’s happened in 2019 and what’s going to happen in 2020. Can you give us an overview of what’s been going on in 2019?

There’s been a lot going on lately in our region. We have seen a lot of activity with Tamarack Resort. They’re spending quite a bit of money on getting their first 59 units finished as well as putting a lot of money and resources towards finishing the village. So the whole landscape of Tamarack is changing quite a bit.

We’ve seen quite a few infrastructure projects. The city of McCall has a downtown revitalization project that’s being finished. Also St Luke’s McCall is building a new $40 million hospital facility in our region.

We’re seeing a lot of activity with a number of different infrastructure between roads and water systems and sewer systems. Our total pipeline, which just includes current and future projects, is over a billion dollars worth of projects on paper.

So we’re pretty excited about that, but we’re also trying to manage that growth. We’re still working on a bunch of stuff in the pathway space in general. We’re working collaboratively between about 10 or 11 different organizations and those organizations all have a different function. But the goal is to create connectivity with trails between the communities and then out to our public lands. We’re excited about the economic opportunity there as well as the community health benefit and recreation tourism benefits.

What’s one of the projects that wrapped up in 2019 that you’re most excited about?

Well, you know, economic development is in perpetuity. So nothing really ends in our community development sphere necessarily. But St. Luke’s new facility in McCall is really exciting. They’re there, they’ve broken ground and they’re underway on that project. So we’re excited to see that project finished next year and the year after. It’s going to be a fairly significant project.

We’ve also gotten some infrastructure grants. And a lot of these things are not very sexy, to be honest, but they’re important parts of our infrastructure.

And so while none of those projects are complete per se, on our front we’re very excited about what they’re going to afford for opportunities in our economic space.

We’ve also seen quite a few new businesses come to town in 2019 – a lot of retail. We’ve also seen the completion of the Payette Lake Trail. The Central Idaho Mountain Biking Association was able to complete that section of trail this last summer, and that’s been a really popular addition to our trail network.

Can you tell us a little bit about housing in the West Central Mountains Region, like vacation housing versus resident housing? 

Housing’s always, always been a big challenge for us. We just wrapped up some research that we did over the summer and fall months. We surveyed about 600 different employees. So rather than asking the employers what the challenges are and how we can solve that, we asked for some kind of boots-on-the-ground realities for employees. And we got some really interesting data. People want to see single-family dwellings constructed. A lot of people, over 80% of our respondents, plan to be in the area for over five years.

So we know that we have a real challenge to retain good talent, especially young families in the area, if we can’t get the housing thing right. And so the cities are all working or are about to pass code amendments that touch on the short-term rental thing. A lot of that falls in line with the House Bill 216 from the state legislature, which has enabled some of the cities and counties to do a little bit more work in the space of regulating short-term rentals and making sure that life safety things are accounted for.

We think that things are moving in a good direction, but we’re forever going to be challenged by housing because we have a great place to not only live but also to recreate.

So how much have you seen the area grow over the past year and over the past five years?

It’s been pretty incredible. We’ve seen a meteoric rise for the region. As I understand it, about 101 people move to Idaho every single day. Most of them land in the Treasure Valley. And that does one of two things: That either redistributes somebody to the West Central Mountains Region or it encourages somebody from maybe the old guard in a different part of Idaho to pursue a quieter or more rural lifestyle with great amenities. Our region has, historically, one of the longest length of life metrics in the entire country, and we’re usually one of the top school districts and also have the healthiest county in Idaho. We have a lot of things that people look for from a quality-of-life perspective.

And so we’re seeing people move in for those variables. We’re seeing people migrate from other parts of the state towards our region for those metrics. And these are folks who can handle a hardy winter. So we appreciate that growth because it brings new perspectives and diversity to our community.

So to move forward to 2020, what things are gonna be happening? What can you tell us?

Our organization typically spends a lot of time in a few key spaces. So on the infrastructure side, the city of McCall is working on broadband deployment at the local level. And so we’re excited to assist with some of the discussion there and see if there’s a broader opportunity for other regional partners in that discussion.

We’re also looking at a lot of the pathways stuff that we touched on earlier. There’s going to be some opportunities to complete some of these trails sections that we’re either designing or are already under construction. We want to get those completed. We are also really excited about some of our grant-writing opportunities. We work really closely with Idaho Department of Commerce and the Department of Labor on some of the infrastructure and financing components. We’re in the process of polishing what those opportunities might look like for 2020 right now.

The thing I’m probably most excited about is business retention and expansion. That’s what we do. We sit down with about a hundred businesses a year, whether they’re small sole proprietors, small to medium-sized companies or very large companies. We have frequent discussions with these folks, and they tell us what they’d like to see and how they’d like to see the community grow and change. And so we do our best to incorporate that feedback almost on a daily basis.

What are some of the reasons that these businesses list for moving and staying in this area? I’m sure it’s a beautiful landscape and, like you said, a healthy county. But have you heard any other interesting sort of feedback from them on that matter?

It’s usually lifestyle. You know, people love to live in the West Central Mountains. It’s postcard scenery. It’s wonderful people. It’s incredible access to recreation. Those are the kinds of things that people aspire to and why people typically live where we’re at. But we also have a really robust government sector, a lot of natural resources and agriculture, small-scale agriculture. So the economic opportunities are really broad as well.

What are some measures that you are taking to facilitate growth and plan for it in the future?

We’re working with our county and city partners to make sure that there’s code amendments for things like housing, the deployment of local option taxes where those are available in our region, making sure that we have a good discussion with our policymakers and the folks who make the decisions on deployment of those funds. Those are the types of things, the tactical lines, the things that we can do.

And then we also do a lot of programming. We work closely with Department of Labor and Idaho Workforce Development Council. We also are working with the association of general contractors to try and bring an apprenticeship program to the region that could help our construction and trades industry who have historically had a real challenge with recruitment. And so between programming and policy, we find a pretty good mixture of advocacy that helps to guide good growth as best we can. Is it perfect? By no means. But is it generally pretty good work? We think so.

I know one of the hot topics being discussed right now is Opportunity Zones. What kind of opportunities exist in the region and what are the tentative plans for those?

So we’ve got two Opportunity Zones in the West Central Mountains Region. One is in New Meadows Valley, so North Adams County, and the other one encompasses a good portion of McCall South, all the way to south of Donnelly. And so we’re seeing a lot of interest from some developers and fund managers to deploy funds from an opportunity fund into potentially some projects. Some of them are strictly private sector type projects, some of them are multifamily housing. But we think there’s a huge opportunity – pun intended – for leveraging that instrument alongside some other incentives to really make sure that developers are getting a good deal on doing projects that make good sense for the community as well.

You sent us a press release earlier about a new coworking space that opened. Can you tell us about that?

Absolutely. We’re really excited about CUB McCall. It’s the community hub for McCall. It’s a partnership with Luminaire, and they’re kind of handling the nuts and bolts of it, but basically it’s a coworking space for up to about five nonprofits. It’s fairly affordable, includes WiFi, there’s a lounge and meeting space, and it’s kind of an open environment where we can do some idea-sharing and some collaboration. It’s at 114 North Third Street, right as you enter McCall. So we’re very excited about that regional hub and what that could do for the community. We think it’ll be a great meeting space, teaching space and learning space.

Do you have any nonprofits that have already reserved space and are going to be working out of there?

We’re in the process of working with the Ponderosa Center to set up shop there. Our organization is going to be located in there and then Luminaire. So we’re the first three, kind of unofficially right now. And then we’ve had some discussions with some other nonprofits. I don’t want to obligate them ahead of them saying an official yes. But it’s 75 bucks a month for an office coworking meeting space. We think it’s really affordable, and we’re going to have a packed house here by the end of November.

So to wrap up, what can the average resident of the West Central Mountains Region expect moving to 2020? What would you like them to look forward to seeing?

Well, I think our region is going to continue to evolve and grow and a lot of ways in lockstep with the Treasure Valley market. We know that there’s a lot of indicators for that, but we’re really excited about what we’ve been able to do with data and how that’s informed good decision-making at the local level. We’re also encouraged by the potential reestablishment of an economic development district for our region, which hopefully would afford us the ability to tap into additional federal funding resources for things like major infrastructure projects, transportation, things like that.

And then you’ll start to see some real traction with our pathway stuff and our workforce development stuff in particular. Those are the things that we know create a better quality of life for our existing residents and also make the place really attractive for other folks coming in.

And then on the housing front, I can’t speak to the details right now, you know, publicly, but we’ve got some additional housing projects coming online and some of them will be affordable projects. Some of them will be market rates, some of them will be deed-restricted or all three in some cases. But we’re continuing to chip away at our housing challenge through a lot of strategies, using our partnerships and the instruments and tools that we have through the state and federal government.

A lot of this is not the sexiest work in the world, but it’s important work and we’re making measurable, meaningful strides in all these spaces. So just keep your eyes and ears open for those developments as they come along.

About Liz Patterson Harbauer

One comment

  1. If valley can’t even take care of the roads how r they going to do anything else there’s so much money here but none of the ones who have it want to improve McCall there only here a couple times a year and have homes worth more than the what the county needs for road maintenance and they say blue collar people don’t have a clue