Business Conditions in North Idaho

Our major employers are not strapped for funds. Luckily, companies such as Coldwater Creek, Thorne Research, and Unicep Packaging are cash-rich, though the stocks for Coldwater have not been this low since 2003. The current economy is troubling for many, but our area is graced by continued good stewardship of its companies, many of which have national and international business: Coldwater Creek, Quest Aircraft Manufacturing, Buck Knives, Airtow, Easy Docks, Encoder Products, Thorne Research, Unicep Packaging, and Litehouse Foods are all companies with low debt and good cash reserves. Even our banks are among the few that did not make the kind of destructive loans that has put our nation at jeopardy.




Finding out about how many businesses are going under and how many are opening is fluid at best. Cathleen Hyde of the Downtown Sandpoint Business Association said that what people see from the street is not a good indicator of occupancy rates. She explained that the visible storefronts might give the appearance of empty buildings, many have simply moved to inner spaces that were significantly more affordable. In fact, we are down about 20 businesses over last year. However, there have been so many new start-ups, including big box stores like Big Five sporting goods opening on Fifth, and other national chains like Jack in the Box and Subway. The new digs for Mountain West Bank and Panhandle State Bank are stunning additions to our town, and with companies like Parsons hiring for the Sand Creek Byway and Quest continuing to hire, our job situation is a mixed bag.


The current rate of occupancy is virtually no different than 2003-04, though does not approach the 94% we saw in ’06-’07. This is probably a good thing though. One of the things that makes Idaho an attractive place to do business are the low costs. We have had a booming economy in some sectors for twenty years. It was not uncommon over the last 3-4 years to see rents in the same high rates as Spokane or even Seattle. With the downturn and closed storefronts, rents have come down to reasonable levels.


Plus, while some businesses have gone under, certainly our rate of bankruptcy is not overt. Idaho ranks 22nd in the nation for bankruptcies, putting it squarely in the middle, and most of the bankruptcies and foreclosures are in areas south of the North Idaho counties of Bonner and Boundary.


Coeur d’Alene is not faring as well as Sandpoint, but predictions are for a fairly rapid recovery even there.

Basically, one of the biggest draws is quality of life, but there are other reasons.

Skilled Employee Pool

Part of the inherent ease of doing business in Bonner County is its bounty of skilled workers. And when you’re located in a beautiful area that happens to have a lower cost of living, it’s particularly easy to find employees who are excited about being part of your growth and productivity. Additionally, Idaho distributes a Workforce Development Training Fund to help Idaho businesses train their workers, so you can have a knowledgeable team up and running in no time.


Low Business Costs

In Bonner County, you’ll also discover some of the lowest workers compensation premiums in the country, thanks to Idaho’s emphasis on working safely and productively. And, having already dropped 36% in the last five years, rates continue to fall steadily, making this an ideal time to relocate your business.

Overall, the costs of doing business in Idaho are much lower when compared with other parts of the country. According to the Regional Financial Associates, Idaho is the seventh best state in the country for total business-related expenditures. For example, many companies find their overall energy costs are half of what they would be in other western regions. And gas prices are just as attractive, as the state is conveniently located on a major north-south natural gas pipeline.

Idaho enjoys a business-friendly government that is committed to helping businesses become successful, profitable assets to its communities. And state and local officials have worked hard to ensure a balanced tax structure that has to date resulted in the third lowest per capita tax burden in the West.

One thing not as easily quantifiable is that employees here have an old-fashioned, show up for your shift, work ethic. Until very recently, Idaho had one of the lowest foreclosure rates in the nation in spite of lower wages than neighboring states. Why? Values that still are important here.

Certainly it has become harder to find work. Once a month for the last few the Bonner County Daily Bee has posted the same story about the rise in the number of unemployed…and, of course, it is true. We enjoyed unprecedented low unemployment for the last few years. Still, since 1997 manufacturing jobs increased in Bonner County by over 1,000, Quest just delivered its first aircraft to missionaries, as another wrote last time, Litehouse is always hiring, and though there are few jobs in the Bee, this is not the bellweather for job postings.


There have been several restaurants that have closed in the last year, yet we have seen several new ones also: Jack in the Box, 41 South, Subway, Dish to name a few. We saw a real slowdown in summer tourism, much of which can be attributed to the high cost of gasoline, yet we saw few businesses shut down. In fact, in an interview on  radio show with Tom Chasse, CEO of Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort, he explained that bookings for this season were on a par with last year’s, and that season was a record breaker for the ski resort. If the throngs that turned out for Sandpoint Winter Carnival are any indicator, then this winter will not be as bad for North Idaho as it has been for many other parts of the country.




According to the Journal of Business, the economic outlook for 2009 expects a soft year for tourism:

Jeanne Gustafson reported that Tourism is expected to slow further in Spokane and North Idaho in the coming year, though event bookings remain strong, observers say. The article went on to state that 2009 group hotel room bookings for events such as conventions so far are up by 2.3 percent compared with 2008, and such bookings for 2010 already have surpassed this years’s group bookings.

Coeur d’Alene and North Idaho hope to maintain their current levels for tourism in the coming year, in contrast to double-digit growth in hotel receipts that those areas experienced last year, says Dani Zibell-Wolfe, vice president of tourism at the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce. The chamber also administers state grants for the North Idaho Tourism Alliance, which promotes tourism in the five northernmost counties in Idaho, Zibell-Wolfe says.

One trend Zibell-Wolfe says is expected to continue is a rise in tourism from areas within a four-hour drive from Coeur d’Alene. Tourists are encouraged to be covered by visitor travel & medical insurance so that unexpected illnesses or accidents while on holiday do not pose a problem.” Last summer, Canadian visitors contributed a lot to the economy, choosing northwest U.S. destinations because of favorable exchange rates. Though gas prices were high in the U.S., they were even higher in Canada, Zibell-Wolfe says.