Our View: Economic growth is crucial to Valley's vitality ( with video)

November 1, 2008 

Communities either attract new people and new employers, or they stagnate. They either move forward, or they fall behind.

It has never made sense to suggest that a community can freeze itself in time and call it good. In an economic downturn, this sort of thinking isn't just illogical. It threatens a community's future by placing its economic vitality at risk.

With the Vision for the Valley editorial project, the Statesman is challenging local leaders, and all of us, to make decisions now that will position the Valley for prosperity, to prepare during this downturn to thrive when the national economy recovers.

On Wednesday, the editorial board met with 11 local leaders for what became a frank and sobering discussion. Perhaps reflecting weeks of stunning news from Wall Street and the global markets, the mood was somber. There wasn't much discussion about greenbelts and Foothills and fine and performing arts - not that anyone dismisses the value of these quality-of-life virtues.

Wednesday's discussion focused on economic development. Or, as BoDo developer Mark Rivers succinctly put it, "prosperity maintenance."

Exactly.

It is time we stop discussing economic development in terms of pro-growth vs. no growth. Let's drop the false dichotomy.

We shouldn't be blind to the challenges resulting from two decades of rapid growth - the infrastructure challenges that leave us driving clogged roads and breathing smoggy air. But we also cannot be blind to the economic challenges ahead. If the Treasure Valley doesn't put together a concerted drive to attract new employers and retain existing jobs, other hungry communities will be only too happy to help themselves.

Many Valley residents weren't here for, or can scarcely remember, the area's last prolonged downturn, in the early 1980s. Years of growth breed a smugness about the need for recruiting and salesmanship. Illustrating the point, an irked Ed Dahlberg, president and CEO of the St. Luke's Health System, passed along a recent remark from a recruiting firm, later dismissed from the job: "Everybody who wants to live in Boise already does."

Communities need a regular infusion of new faces, new storefronts, new human energy. This requires marketing and leaving nothing to chance.

Said Jody Olson, an attorney and board chairman of the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho: "The folks out there don't think Boise is as wonderful as we think it is, or they just don't know about it, or the message isn't as good as it once was."

The Valley has a good message to deliver. Most of us should be able to agree on that point.

Part of the message is telling newcomers what the Valley has to offer - a range of amenities, says Downtown Boise Association executive director Karen Sander, that surprises many people. Part of the message, says Olson, is shaking misperceptions about Idaho's attitude toward diversity and its commitment to higher education.

Surprising newcomers, and battling misperceptions, are pretty much the same task. And it should be grounded in facts. A work force with experience and expertise in high-tech. A university and a new community college - approved by voters, even before the downturn underscored the value of job training. And, to sweeten the deal, amenities such as greenbelts and Foothills and fine and performing arts.

It's time for the Valley to agree on how we sell ourselves, and also why we sell ourselves. The first priority is maintaining our economy. We haven't had to give this much thought the past 20 or so years. Now, we must.

"Our View" is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman's editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, e-mail editorial@idahostatesman.com.

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