When Chip Schwarze moved his family to Idaho Falls from Seattle in 1993, the business community was a shell of what you see today.
“Idaho Falls was about 47,000 people,” he said. “We found it frustrating that the nearest Home Depot and Toys R Us was in Ogden, Utah.
“At Christmas, we would always take a night, go down to Salt Lake City, see the lights, and do our Christmas shopping. We don’t have to do that now.”
The reason Schwarze, chief executive officer for the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce, no longer has to make that trip is the expansive growth within the community, spurred in part by the work and advocacy within the Chamber of Commerce to promote Idaho Falls as a center of culture and commerce to the region.
And so far, the work within the region seems to be paying off. Since 1993, the population of Idaho Falls has skyrocketed, with more than 60,000 people calling the city home and new businesses opening up shop annually. Those long drives to Utah for shopping are no longer a necessity.
“It’s a fun exercise to sit on Highway 26 some Saturday morning between 9 and 11 and count the Wyoming license plates,” Schwarze aid. “They’re now coming in here to do their shopping.”
However, there is always room for more growth in the business community, and in the upcoming fiscal year, the chamber is bringing a lot of ideas to the table to continue this growth while maintaining a strong sense of culture and community within the region.
While the Idaho Falls business community has seen a large uptick, there still is work that needs to be done, Schwarze said.
Area leaders are worried about the exodus of some of the region’s youth population. Keeping young people here and attracting new ones to the area is an important goal for sustaining the area’s standard of living. The chamber is prepared to focus on lobbying efforts for a number of key advocacy issues that would impact the region as a whole.
A priority is building a better-educated workforce within the region. The chamber advocated heavily for converting Eastern Idaho Technical College into the College of Eastern Idaho. Bonneville County voters in May approved transitioning EITC into a community college which now offers classes and associate degree opportunities.
“It’s a thing that’s a huge buzzword in business now — having a qualified workforce and a highly-trained workforce,” he said. “If you look at our college rates, and the number of people moving onto college in the nation, this is going to allow moms and dads who came straight out of school and went to work in a trade, to go back to school, get an education, and set into a better paying job.
“It will provide our local economy with a steady force of a better trained workforce when we try to bring new businesses into town.”
Eric Hess, chairman of the board of directors for the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce, also sees the potential success of the College of Eastern Idaho as a catalyst to keep a younger generation in the area while providing them the skills to succeed in the workforce.
Hess said, young, educated individuals are choosing to leave Idaho Falls for bigger schools and opportunities at an alarming rate.
“We’re like most any rural community where one of the largest challenges is kids going off to become educated and never coming back,” he said. “So things like this can help people go out, become educated, then return to settle down.”
This opportunity for a more affordable college education is a key advocacy point for the Chamber due to its potential impact on that youthful workforce.
And Schwarze sees big things coming down the road thanks to this focus on education.
“There’s going to be a bomb of people wanting to come here,” he said. “Some organizations might have been interested in relocating here, but had concerns about filling their workforce with what they need. So I think with the college, we’re going to able to keep a lot more people, we’re going to grow the population, and we’ll be able to grow those jobs here.”
As with all local chambers, the primary focus of the organization is to promote and protect the interest of the business community. It’s no different here.
When putting together an annual list of advocacy programs to focus on prior to the legislative session beginning in January, business interests remain at the top of the card. Aside from education, other priorities include continued advocacy for the region’s health care industry.
“We’ve put together a nice bookmark, where we list out our priorities, and the business community’s priorities that they are funneling up to us,” Hess said. “Number one on the list this year is tax reform, and trying to lower taxes for businesses in an effort to spur growth.”
A lot of the region’s growth has come from the tourism industry. With a number of nationally known outdoor destinations within the region, tourists flock to Idaho Falls, which the chamber believes is the central location of this tourism boom.
“People don’t realize that hotels and restaurants … account for over $200 million in revenue that is brought into and spent in this town,” Schwarze said. “You go stand at our visitor’s center and to the people coming through, they love it. So that brings in businesses, such as new hotels and restaurants, to the region.”
The chamber wants to capitalize on the sense of community individuals find within Idaho Falls.
“You’re going to find that there is a huge sense of family in this community, and we look out for each other,” Schwarze said. “When a small business shows up, people go and are willing to give them a try. Our small businesses do a fabulous job, and we support our local businesses.
“We’ve been doing ribbon cuttings three nights a week.”
And maintaining that support system within the chamber is key to maintaining Idaho Falls’ small-town culture with larger town dreams, according to Hess.
“When culture stays a priority, then you look for growth and opportunities within that culture,” he said. “But growth and expansion, just for growth and expansion’s sake, I think that’s when values and things like that begin to erode. But as long as (the culture) is always a top priority, I think you can grow and expand from that and make it work.”
So far Schwarze believes community leaders have done a good job preserving those ideals.
“(It) did not take long for me to feel like I belonged,” Schwarze said. “I consider myself an Idahoan, because (the people here are) genuinely warm, friendly and welcoming.
“Once you visit Idaho Falls you stay or come back to stay.”