In tiny Challis, Idaho couple plans co-op, jobs, stability

The Jameses, building on the success of other ventures, want a food processing center to make the most of the local market.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comNovember 26, 2013 

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Christopher and Debbie James opened the Tea Cup Cafe and Bakery in Challis last spring, building on the success of their conference center, which is right outside of town. They say they have more plans to bolster the Custer County economy.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

CHALLIS - Christopher and Debbie James have plans to turn local beef, fish and vegetables into tasty, healthy meals in the next couple of years.

The Jameses already have a conference and retreat center in the area, Living Waters Ranch, that is doing well. They say their Christian faith is spurring them to develop a business that they hope will create employment opportunities for the Old West town.

"Because we have been blessed personally, it's our job to reach out to the community," Christopher James said.

James is the son of Robert James, who founded Raymond James Financial, now a $5 billion investment company. He came to Challis from Florida in the 1980s to check out a mining claim he had and decided to move there.

The Jameses started Living Waters Ranch in 1997 as a place for both Christian and secular retreats for up to 350 people. Debbie then took the lead in developing the Tea Cup Cafe and Bakery earlier this year in downtown Challis, where you can get tea served on china in the Earl Grey room, along with big breakfasts, prime rib dinners and home-baked pies, truffles, cheesecake and cinnamon rolls.

"There haven't been any nice new restaurants since I came here 21 years ago," Debbie James said.

NEEDED JOBS

Challis is the biggest town in Custer County. Thompson Creek Mine, which accounts for 40 percent of the value on the county's property tax rolls, recently laid off 100 workers.

There also is uncertainty in the cattle industry, which is the county's other major economic contributor.

"We sure could use the jobs," Challis Mayor Mark Lupher said of the Jameses' plans.

The Jameses have their skeptics in a rural county where change doesn't come often and outsiders are viewed warily. Lupher said people mostly have raised issues about the Jameses' shifting of their nonprofit retreat to larger, profit-making businesses.

They already own several large ranches, raising a good chunk of the total of 28,000 head of cattle that graze in Custer County and 37,000 head in Lemhi County.

They also have a geothermally heated fish-farming operation that includes two hydroelectric plants, which put power on the electric grid. The Jameses plan to take the wastewater from the fish farm and use it in a business that would grow vegetables hydroponically.

"It adds another dimension, sustainability, which is very important," Christopher James said.

They and partners Jeri and Lisa D'Orazio hope to get the food processing center going in the next two years.

RESURRECTING THE FISH FARM

Lupher started a tilapia fish farm in 1994 that later closed down. James bought it, and today it sells 47,000 live fish annually to buyers in Vancouver, Seattle and Calgary. Lupher is the manager.

Once expanded and in full production, James hopes it can get annual fish production up to 1 million pounds, which would be processed at the new plant along with the vegetables and beef.

As envisioned, the plant would meet USDA regulations and package food for shipment to grocers and wholesalers. It's too early to say how many jobs might be created.

"It would be nice to add value to farm products in Idaho instead of the value going outside the state," Lupher said.

The Jameses say they can't do it alone. That's why they are setting up a cooperative in which ranchers and others who get involved are part-owners of the business. This allows the community to join, like the Salmon River Electrical Cooperative or a credit union.

"It's not going to be mine," Christopher James said, "it's going to be ours."

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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