IDAHO FALLS, Idaho – As his fellow developers around the country can attest, Jeff Hawkes couldn’t have picked a worse time to open Hawks Landing, a new urban lifestyle development in the foothills overlooking the Snake River Valley.
But while the construction industry here dropped off with everybody else’s, leaving some 1,369 construction workers – nearly a third of the work force – out of work, Hawkes may have found the perfect spot for the times.
His 100-acre parcel, with an amphitheater view of the entire Idaho Falls area, looks down on a part of the state – indeed, the country – that has weathered the storm better than almost any other. Unemployment is a third less than the almost double-digit state average.
The federally funded Idaho National Laboratory, which has provided a stable base of 7,000 to 8,000 jobs for so long it’s known simply as “The Site,” got the state’s biggest stimulus boost in 2009 with $468 million to accelerate the cleanup of its Cold War-era nuclear plants.
And today’s Idaho Falls and the surrounding metropolitan area have a far more diverse economy than ever before.
Melaleuca’s more than 2,000 jobs produce and distribute nutritional, pharmaceutical, facial and home care products worldwide. The traditional food processing and distribution businesses are now joined by a Qwest call center, malted barley plants and spinoff companies from the INL.
Idaho Falls has developed into a regional shopping and health care hub. The health care industry is one of the places that grew through the recession.
“You don’t have to work at The Site to make a living, and that wasn’t true 20 years ago,” said Roger Plothow, publisher of the Post Register newspaper and president of Grow Idaho, the grass-roots economic development group in Bonneville County.
That stability has business leaders and workers optimistic about 2010 and beyond. French energy giant Areva plans to build a $2 billion uranium-enrichment plant nearby. That is scheduled to open 2014.
“We are a little pocket of happiness in a state of gloom,” said Jerry Scheid, a retired farmer and rancher.
Even builder Hawkes has reason for optimism. In the past five weeks, after he and his development’s homebuilders dropped their prices to compete with traditional subdivisions in the valley, seven homes have sold. They are confident they will keep selling as buyers learn what a bargain they have.
“The lights got turned off in 2008, but we persevered,” said Rob Phelps of Phelps Homes. “Now things are turning around.”
Even the INL was cutting back in 2008. In August of that year Travis Drussel of Pocatello was laid off from his job as a hazardous-waste technician.
Instead of tearing out old equipment contaminated with radioactivity and closing down old research facilities, Drussel was forced to drive to Wyoming to help friends build houses.
But when the Obama stimulus package steered millions to the INL for cleanup, Drussel returned as one of the 643 people either hired or kept on with the funding.
“The most important thing to me is I have a job and I’m able to go home and spend the night with my wife and children,” Drussel said.
A lot of Idaho Falls construction workers are still waiting to come back to work, Phelps said. The surplus work force means employers can be choosers.
“We had 800 resumes for 60 jobs,” said Tom Dogal, a department manager for Idaho Cleanup Project’s Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center, the old Idaho Chemical Processing Plant.
One of Idaho Falls’ biggest success stories is Melaleuca, which began in 1985 and has grown steadily since. Even the recession hasn’t slowed its growth.
The company invested $18 million in a distribution center in Idaho Falls in 2006 and $20 million in a distribution center in Knoxville, Tenn., in 2008.
It just completed a $5.5 million plant that opens this coming week. When in full production, the Idaho Falls plant, which will produce powdered drinks, is expected to add another 150 people to the company’s Idaho work force.
Melaleuca has a new phone system that can handle 300,000 calls a day and a new IT center at its headquarters. Workers can use its day care, restaurant, fitness center and VIP lounge.
“We’ve never had a layoff and we never will,” said Jann Nielsen, Melaleuca’s chief administrative officer.
In November, the company handed out loyalty bonuses to workers based on the number of years they have worked, Nielsen said. That put $1.5 million into the local economy just before Christmas.
Not everything is rosy. Stores and businesses are still closing, such as Schlotsky’s Deli – a chain sandwich shop adjacent to the Grand Teton Mall – that shut its doors last weekend.
Savannah Phillips was working the lunch shift last week, but she wasn’t worried. She already had a new job set up at Jimmy Johns, another chain sandwich place nearby.
“There are jobs out there if you look,” Phillips said
The Framing Corner, which offers custom picture frames in a mini-mall near the Grand Teton Mall, was forced to close its Rexburg store recently. But framer Amanda Jones said the work has been steady enough at its Idaho Falls location to keep them busy.
“We’re doing OK here,” she said.
Downtown, Max Bosworth at Max’s Gun Shop said business is hot and cold, but he was expecting booming business Friday. The INL and other businesses have gone to four-day full-time work weeks.
“Two-thirds of this town has Friday off,” Bosworth said.
Still, he knows the region hasn’t been immune to the economic downturn.
Last year, Bosworth loaned out more money in his pawn business than ever before, and the rate of failure – when people couldn’t pay him back – rose to 20 percent from the traditional 5 percent.
He pawns only guns and fancy saddles, but people come in trying to get him to buy everything from video games to jewelry.
“I see people struggling to make ends meet,” he said. “People who have money are more cautious.”
But it could be turning around for everybody – at least that’s the consensus around here. Cam Cragun, who was excavating a foundation with an end-loader up at Hawks Landing last week, reflected on how hard times had been and how much better they are now.
“Right now, I’m digging again,” he said. “That’s a good thing.“