Idaho’s west central mountain communities such as McCall, Donnelley, and Cascade are trying to attract workers to improve their economic development, and they see improved broadband internet access as one avenue.
“It’s a community issue,” said Andrew Mentzer, executive director of the West Central Mountains Economic Development Council, who recently led the region’s third annual economic development summit, which sold out several events and attracted approximately 150 people. “It’s the biggest barrier to economic and community development.”
The region recently embarked on a project to encourage high-tech workers from expensive regions like San Francisco and Seattle to telecommute from their area, but for that to work, high-speed, reliable internet is required.
Fast, reliable internet is also necessary to attract young talent to an area, Mentzer said.
Mentzer hopes to leverage funding such as grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which, along with the Federal Communications Commission, recently awarded almost $2 million to improve broadband internet access in rural Idaho communities. Idaho reportedly has the slowest internet speed in the country, and other cities and regions are looking for alternatives to improve it.
“There are USDA funds on the horizon to upgrade broadband capacity,” he said. “Our existing providers are making upgrades, and we want to work with them.”
The group is also working with the Idaho State Department of Commerce.
McCall is also upgrading its fiber optic infrastructure in its downtown as part of a street rebuilding project.
Other issues the region confronts are a lack of workers and affordable housing, as an increasing number of housing units become vacation homes or short-term rentals and consequently unavailable or too expensive for employees in the travel and tourism sector for which the region is known – another reason the region is trying to attract tech workers.
For housing, the group presented a draft white paper to cover low-hanging fruit in the area, including modular and container housing, smaller-footprint housing and housing clusters, Mentzer said. In addition, the group wants to find people willing to have such housing units in their neighborhoods.
“We’re trying to form a ‘YIMBY’ (Yes In My Backyard) group so we can see broader community support,” he said. “It’s not a neighborhood issue, it’s a community issue.”
That could involve innovative new financing strategies for workforce housing.
“We’re working with Boise-area folks to create an impact investing platform in the region around housing,” Mentzer said. While it would still offer a standard rate of return of 4 to 7 percent, investments would be used for housing, he said.
For workforce, the group is working with Boise State University’s Idaho Policy Institute to attract talent as well as train and retain existing talent.
“Businesses are seeing both high rates of turnover and large gaps in the labor pool, particularly when it comes to entry-level positions and positions requiring skilled labor and technical expertise and experience,” noted the institute’s report. “The housing market and overall cost of living may be contributing to these challenges.”
The institute is planning to survey high school students in the region to identify future workforce development partnerships, said Vanessa Fry, research director.
Consequently, Mentzer’s group is considering strategies on recruiting from outside the area, including veterans and cultural and exchange opportunities through the nation’s J-1 visa program, which could create seasonal employment opportunities for students. For training, existing school districts could offer career technical education, or groups such as restaurants might develop industry-specific training facilities, Mentzer said.
At the same time, the region wants to maintain its mountain-town culture while Idaho grows, Mentzer said.
“We want to stay true to our roots but embrace prosperity as it comes to us,” he said.
Issues with housing, broadband and workforce aren’t something the region is going to solve in a year, Mentzer conceded.
“We need to be iterative, thoughtful and tactical,” he said.
Eastern Idaho works to improve broadband internet access
A number of eastern Idaho cities are also working to improve internet access for their citizens.
The Idaho Falls City Council recently authorized Idaho Falls Power to begin a pilot program to examine costs associated with providing high-speed fiber optic access to residents. The city established a 96-strand “dark fiber” network in 2002, 60 strands of which are currently used by about 500 local businesses, but it wants to make the unused fiber available to residential customers as well.
Idaho Falls is partnering with UTOPIA Fiber, Utah’s local open access fiber optic network, to design and manage the network for the residential fiber pilot program. This is the first project UTOPIA Fiber will be working on outside Utah. Idaho Falls Power will be managing its own infrastructure and building the physical connections to residents’ homes, and the system will rely on local Idaho companies to provide services on the network.
The actual boundaries for the pilot program have not yet been finalized, but the general area includes the numbered streets between 17th Street and Tautphaus Park, and it also will extend into a number of residential areas south of Sunnyside, the city said. A meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Oct. 23 at Taylorview Middle School to explain the program in greater detail to residents living in the pilot project boundaries.
Construction is expected to start in early November and continue through the spring. Service to customers will become available as the project progresses, beginning sometime between December and May depending on customer location, the city said.
The neighboring city of Ammon has received national renown for its city-owned fiber optic system.
In addition, the Pocatello company Tru Fiber, partnering with Citizens Community Bank, said it is bringing fiber optic internet to the Highland neighborhood of Pocatello, as well as three Chubbuck neighborhoods. Thus far, the company has installed about 1,000 residential customers.