Mayor Bieter refines his approach to economic development

A new economic team will have a clearer division of responsibilities to move the city forward, he says.

sberg@idahostatesman.comFebruary 16, 2014 

PROPERTIES THAT ARE AVAILABLE

The city of Boise owns these properties that private businesses and organizations could buy or use in partnership with the city or other public groups. The city says its goal for each property is to encourage the “greatest public use.” Potential future uses include industrial and mixed-use facilities.

PROPERTY 1
Acres: 3.14
Current use: vacant land and commercial buildings

PROPERTY 2
Acres: 6.9
Current use: vacant land

PROPERTY 3
Acres: 4.4
Current use: Boise City Housing and Community Development

PROPERTY 4
Acres: 4.8
Current use: Boise Public Library main branch and Biomark

PROPERTY 5
Acres: 301
Current use: vacant land and fueling station

CITY OF BOISE; STATESMAN GRAPHIC

  • SVEN BERG

    Sven has covered Boise city government since July 2012. When he was a kid, Sven spent his summers moving sprinkler pipes on the grass fields of north Idaho.

Boise Mayor David Bieter is looking for a headhunter and a property manager.

The job openings reflect the departures last year of Cece Gassner and John Brunelle, who together made up the economic development team in Bieter’s office.

Bieter wants someone with experience managing real estate to help sell, rent, trade and prepare the hundreds of properties Boise owns for use by private companies.

“That’s a fantastic thing,” said Clark Krause, executive director of the Boise Valley Economic Partnership. “Good cities, and Boise obviously is one of them, we’re always looking and figuring out, ‘What are our best assets and how can we use them best?’”

A person who specializes in recruiting would help develop a pool of workers for Boise businesses.

Gassner and Brunelle already were doing some of those things, but Bieter wants their replacements to put a sharper focus on real estate and recruiting.

The way the mayor uses the positions will help set the tone for Boise’s economy into the future, said Brian Greber, a retired executive for timber giant Weyerhaeuser and founder of Boise State University’s Center for Business Research and Economic Development.

On both recruiting and real estate, Greber said the city should build what he calls “sustainable competitive advantage.” It means putting in place the right workers, land and transportation systems. Once that happens, he said, businesses will come.

“The human resource and capital resource, to me, are much more critical than the tax concession that you give,” he said.

DEPARTMENT SHUFFLE

After Bieter took office in 2004, he moved two economic-development positions out of Planning and Development Services and into the mayor’s office. The idea was to give economic development a higher profile, reflecting its importance to Bieter, spokesman Adam Park said.

Brunelle and Gassner both started in the mayor’s office in the summer of 2008.

Gassner specialized in keeping Boise’s businesses here and recruiting new ones, Park said. She was Bieter’s point of contact for The Greenhouse, a city-owned business incubator, and she made periodic visits with the mayor to businesses in the city to check on how they were doing and how the city could help.

Brunelle focused on real estate the city owned. He handled the lease of city-owned property to Union Pacific; oversaw the sale of the Boise Armory to a private developer; and worked out a long-term lease of a warehouse on 9th and River streets to Biomark, which makes wildlife-monitoring devices.

Both are gone now. Gassner took a job last month at Boise law firm Perkins Coie. The board of Capital City Development Corporation, Boise’s urban renewal agency, made Brunelle the agency’s executive director in June. Bieter serves on the urban renewal board and appoints other board members.

Bieter waited to fill Brunelle’s position because he was considering a shakeup of his own economic development team, and because new Planning and Development Director Derick O’Neill was taking on a bigger economic role, Park said.

Now, Bieter says he will move the property specialist position back into Planning and Development, and the specialist will report to O’Neill. He’s still developing the scope of that position.

The recruiter would continue to report directly to Bieter, who has begun talking with candidates. The city officially posted the job opening Friday.

Bieter hasn’t set a time frame for filling the positions.

“He’s being thoughtful about who really is qualified to take those positions,” Krause said. “He didn’t just jump back in and try to fill seats.”

CUTTING DOWN BARRIERS

O’Neill spent more than a decade in real estate before he became director of Boise Planning and Development Services, the city department that handles permitting, zoning, design review and historic preservation issues.

In addition to the rest of their duties, many people in O’Neill’s department work on one or more aspects of managing city property. A specialist would do nothing but.

“We don’t really have anyone waking up and going to sleep thinking about not only the city assets, but also all of the development that is going on around us and how to make sure we’re aligned,” O’Neill said. “The city isn’t in the business of real estate development and we’re not going to get in that business, so the business is for us to figure out how to get it into the hands of those who do that for a living and are successful doing it.”

Boise can help itself by continuing Brunelle’s work on city land near the Boise Airport, Greber said. Before he left the mayor’s office, Brunelle helped extend railroad service to some of the businesses in the airport corridor. He negotiated a lease of city-owned land with alternative fuel company Blu LNG and worked on plans for a rail-truck loading facility.

Because it’s close to Interstate 84, the airport and railroad, the industrial area is ripe for manufacturing, agricultural processing, equipment processing and similar industries, Greber said.

O’Neill’s approach to economic development is to first make Boise’s permitting process easier, faster and cheaper.

“We don’t need to be the barrier,” O’Neill said. “We need to cut down the barriers.”

He said he instituted a one-stop, over-the-counter process that allows tenants of commercial buildings to get approval for improvements they want to make to the space they rent.

Planning and Development Services now offers business-plan assistance for small business owners. It’s similar to the kind of mentoring entrepreneurs can find in an incubator, but Boise is running it right out of the planning department.

“I categorize that as economic development, because if you’re not an easy place to get things done, and a fast place to get things done, people aren’t going to want to do business with you,” O’Neill said.

THE RIGHT PEOPLE

Year after year, high-tech and information-based companies in Boise say what they need most is a better supply of workers. Bieter wants someone in his office to help bring skilled workers here and work with the Treasure Valley’s educational system to boost the number of students studying and graduating in technical fields.

Over the past five years, Greber said, Boise has done a good job of diversifying its supply of workers.

“We historically were kind of singularly enamored with the high-tech manufacturing center,” he said. “We’re starting to broaden our views to the software-development side as well as other types of industries that are adding value to economy.”

Bringing in and educating more skilled trade laborers, such as pipe fitters, electricians and people who manage control systems in all kinds of plants, would boost the diversification Greber wants to see.

Boise State and other Treasure Valley schools can play their part. That doesn’t necessarily mean more people holding four-year and advanced degrees. Technical education can be just as valuable, Greber said.

He said schools should start new programs with an eye on a labor force that meets the Treasure Valley’s long-term needs. That’s because it takes so long to get new programs off the ground that business needs have often changed by the time new programs start producing graduates.

“So, for academia to respond to this year’s employment needs time and time again has proven to be folly,” Greber said. “Let’s not listen totally to today’s squeaky wheels, but let’s think about tomorrow, what’s going to be in this valley.”

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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