REXBURG — NAVEX Global, a Portland, Ore.-based ethics and compliance software company, has offices in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., London and Rexburg, a town of about 30,000 people 30 miles northeast of Idaho Falls.
NAVEX Global is one of many out-of-state companies that have opened an office or manufacturing plant in Rexburg, a town that has rapidly grown over the last three decades.
Rexburg has become an attractive place to do business, not just for companies looking for a location in business-friendly Idaho but for homegrown businesses, as well.
Basic American Foods, a Walnut Creek, Calif.-based food corporation, is expanding its Rexburg facility, a $125 million project that is expected to add 40 new jobs. AMET Inc, an automated welding system manufacturer, recently opened a new office here. And homegrown companies, such as Citius Composites, also a manufacturer, and Hemming Properties, a retail and residential developer, are keeping their business local.
Driven by an educated workforce and a low cost to do business, and recruited by a business-savvy city government, Rexburg’s major industries — agriculture, light manufacturing and technology — are growing.
“The joke is the city bird is the construction crane,” said Scott Johnson, director of economic development and community relations for the city of Rexburg and executive director for Madison County Partners Inc., an organization that promotes business growth and expansion.
A recent study by SmartAdvisor Match, a branch of personal finance company SmartAsset, ranked Madison County first in the state for investment growth.
Over the last three years, Madison County had 15.6 percent business growth, $110 million gross domestic product growth and 33.2 building permits per 1,000 households, according to the study.
Madison County, with Rexburg and Brigham Young University-Idaho at its center, has a population of about 40,000. According to a study by Colliers International, Madison County is sixth in the nation for unemployment, at 1.7 percent, although those numbers are likely skewed by the high number of full-time BYU-Idaho students who aren’t counted in unemployment figures.
But it’s largely the students who are driving economic growth in Madison County. According to Colliers, Rexburg’s population has grown more than 50 percent since 1990.
Since transitioning from a junior college, Ricks College, to a four-year university in 2001, BYU-Idaho’s enrollment has exploded. The university grew from about 9,000 students in 2000 to about 20,000 in 2019, and the school adds more students every year, bringing a new population of educated workers to eastern Idaho.
The workforce is the No. 1 draw for businesses thinking about relocating to Rexburg, Johnson said.
“It’s not just a workforce for today, they’re also looking for that workforce into the future,” he said. “We benefit in east Idaho because we have two major universities, as well as a new technical college. Those are the types of places that (businesses) know the workforce is going to be continuing to come out of.
“That’s a big deal for them,” he added.
BYU-Idaho provides not only a large number of workers to the region but quality workers, as well. BYU-Idaho produces “incredibly educated and hard-working” graduates, Johnson said.
“The university and the standards that they have for their students really helps out,” he said.
While a strong workforce attracts businesses, Rexburg, as a place, needs to attract workers to want to live here. A high-paying manufacturing job alone won’t persuade everyone to stay.
“What is today’s workforce looking for? It really is place,” Johnson said. “They’re looking for places that are up-and-coming, the majority of them don’t want homes — they’d rather not spend their Saturdays mowing lawns. They’d rather be out kayaking or doing something else, they’re looking for a completely different place than even just a few generations ago.”
Hemming Village, a mixed-use development that opened last year, is an example of business responding to the need for “place.” A modern shopping center, the property includes student housing for BYU-Idaho, retail stores, commercial offices and a parking structure.
Hemming Village is home to several restaurants and a first-of-its-kind Idaho Central Credit Union Innovation Center — a bank branch with a virtual reality room, 3D printer, free-to-use computers, automatic tellers and private rooms, where customers can video chat with a human bank associate in the business’s Pocatello branch.
Hemming Village is also home to NAVEX Global. Prior to moving to the new development, NAVEX Global occupied two offices in Rexburg.
In 2013 NAVEX Global acquired PolicyTech, a locally owned high-growth software company, and set up shop in Rexburg. The company’s Rexburg operation grew enough to support a second office, which opened four years later.
“The employees we gained through that acquisition have contributed significantly to our growth and our culture, and we have been looking for an opportunity to expand operations in this area for some time,” said Bob Conlin, NAVEX Global president and CEO, in a news release announcing the 2017 expansion.
Among the factors that brought NAVEX Global to Rexburg was the multilingual skills of BYU-Idaho graduates who would likely apply for jobs there.
The company now occupies more than 20,000 square feet of office space in Hemming Village, which is just blocks from the BYU-Idaho campus.
“That development is driven by the university,” Johnson said. “These things really play off each other.”
Parking, housing and development space are challenges Rexburg faces amid its growth. Hemming Village exemplifies a solution to all three. Developers chose to build up, rather than out, to maximize space. That strategy is giving Rexburg more of an urban atmosphere, Johnson said.
Across the street from Hemming Village, a new housing development, The Cove, advertises rooftop hot tubs. A block east of Hemming Village, an older development, North Point, is a mix of residential, retail and parking.
Each new development near the university caters to students’ needs, but at the same time, non-students living in Rexburg may be undeserved.
Student housing is in high demand, with BYU-Idaho’s growing population, but so is single-family housing, as more workers settle in Madison County.
“Housing is difficult,” Johnson said. “It’s transitioning from multi-family housing to your traditional home that begins to be a little bit of a problem here.”
Many developers, who buy increasingly expensive Rexburg land, are building apartments, rather than homes. The lack of homes could drive first-time homebuyers to surrounding cities, where there is already a housing shortage.
Johnson hopes to encourage more private development near downtown. Next, the city has its sights on Center Street, which connects the university to downtown Rexburg.
“We’re looking at creating a friendly environment,” Johnson said.
One example is a multi-level and multi-use parking structure on Center Street. It would include retail on the bottom level, a few levels of parking and office space on top.
Downtown is where companies want to be, Johnson said.
“Businesses like to be as close as they can to that workforce,” he said.
The challenge will be finding the space. Businesses likely will follow.