A conversation with. Don Dietrich Administrator of Economic and Community Development for the State of Idaho
"We've got land, cheap power, and available water, as well as a work force that is technologically adept and happy to live here. We are 750 miles from the West Coast, Canada, and Mexico, accessible to 70 million people."
A. Idaho has undergone a tremendous transformation this year. The gross state product (GSP) is up 8.4 percent over the previous year, and we have a 3.2 percent unemployment rate. Exports are expected to hit $3.6 billion this year.
Q. What sectors are most promising?
A. We are seeing tremendous growth in the high-tech sector, encouraged by the presence of Micron and Hewlett-Packard. One of the things that the governor did in 2005 was establish the Office of Science and Technology within the existing department of Commerce and Labor. They identified four core competencies: agriculture/biosciences, imaging, new materials and nanotechnology, and power and energy. The group found that the most promising areas for growth are where research institutions intersect with the industry base. Photronics in conjunction with Micron, the state's largest private sector employer, is investing $150 million in a new nanofab.
Q. Are you focusing on any specific categories of high tech?
A. Our focus is on alternative electric power, bio-based fuels and products, and ecological health. We are fortunate that Arco, Idaho, has the Idaho National Laboratory that is charged with researching the next generation of nuclear power. In the early 1950s, an experimental breeder reactor in Idaho produced the first usable electric power from the atom. A few years later, enough nuclear power was generated to briefly light the city of Arco. We continue to attract companies using membrane or nuclear technology. Besides nuclear energy, Idaho has tremendous wind capabilities, and three research universities - Idaho State, University of Idaho and Boise State University - are working on the development of biodiesel and wind as alternative energy sources. Because of our agricultural roots, we are also participating in several ethanol projects.
Q. What is ecological health?
A. Ecological health leverages agriculture and natural resources as they relate to agriculture, timber, food, and tourism. By studying ecological health, we will make our primary industries sustainable over the long term.
Q. Is high tech outpacing agriculture?
A. Our GSP is derived from non-agricultural based products, but agriculture is still an economic force. Potatoes are still one of our most recognizable crops; we are the third-largest dairy state and still growing, and we are first in commercial trout production in the country. Ninety percent of the nation's trout is raised in the Snake River Valley. [Former] Governor [Dirk] Kempthorne used to say that our products range from potato chips to microchips.
Q. What incentives do you offer to companies exploring sites in Idaho?
A. We've got land, cheap power, and available water, as well as a work force that is technologically adept and happy to live here. We are 750 miles from the West Coast, Canada, and Mexico, accessible to 70 million people. Our operating costs are 93.2 percent of the national average. Economy.com ranked Idaho number one in the country for lowest energy costs. Idaho doesn't need a lot of incentives. While legislators try to keep a lid on taxes for its residents, we do offer some economic incentives. We offer work force training funds, and over the last year the legislature supported a $1 million deal-closing fund that provides the director of economic and community development with a discretionary fund to help when they are maybe one piece of infrastructure away from being able to close the deal.
Q. What do you expect in the 2007 legislative session?
A. Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter has roots in ranching, and is committed to a strong and vibrant rural community. This year, he will request funds to expand the Rural Broadband Initiative, which received $5 million last year; this year he is asking for $10 million. Although Idaho already ranks high in connectivity, we want to go the extra step for schools, businesses and homes. We are also looking to add funds and increase our base from $2.85 million to $3.65 million for the Rural Block Grant Program. We also hope to increase our Idaho Gem Grants Program, an extension of the rural initiative, from $400,000 to $600,000.