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Blaine County Growth Slows, Construction Remains Robust
Wednesday, May 3, 2023


The Pioneer Saloon’s Duffy Witmer is marking 50 years in the Sun Valley area. And he says he still has just as much love for Ketchum as he did the day he first set foot in the Wood River Valley.

“I came here when there was just one stoplight and a lot has changed. But I still feel so blessed looking at the mountains and looking at the community we have here,” he said. “I find Ketchum habit forming. I go to Galena Lodge—what a treasure Galena is. I go to Redfish Lake—how beautiful!”

Witmer joined with others in taking stock of the good and the challenges in the Wood River Valley as Sun Valley Economic Development held its inaugural roundtable discussion at The Kneadery. Panelists discussed growth and the economy, the state of construction and a May 16 vote to reallocate the existing Local Option Tax monies between air service and affordable housing projects.

Guy Cherp, who recently took over as SVED board chairman from Rick LeFaivre, said a second roundtable discussion will be held in June at Zenergy and will focus on such issues as child care and health and wellness initiatives.

“SVED’s mission is to preserve and advance the vitality of the Sun Valley region while holding true to our values. It’s about supporting and investing in your community,” said Cherp, vice president of Cox Communications.


Growth in Blaine County is slowing with a net gain of only 53 in 2022 after a net gain of 126 in 2021, 438 in 2020 and 133 in 2019, according to driver’s license registrations. Blaine County issued 723 new drivers licenses in 2022 with 670 outgoing.

Accounting for children, there is probably about 25,200 people in the county, said Harry Griffith, SVED’s executive director. That’s nearly 400 more people than the official U.S. census estimate of 24,866 in July 22.

The U.S. Census reported 24,767 Blaine County residents in July 2021, 24,342 in July 2020 and 24,275 in April 2020.

Blaine County’s growth rate is 2.2 percent, compared with 4.4 percent for Idaho and 9 percent for  Sandpoint and North Idaho.

The growth has been in the North Valley with Bellevue and Carey losing population, probably due to housing pressures, said Griffith. California, Washington, Utah and Oregon represent the top states of origin.

Blaine County is becoming wealthier and older, Griffith said, with the average annual income of incoming residents $350,000, compared with $82,000 for outgoing residents. There’s been a 40 percent growth in bank deposits.

We will see an increase in the Blaine County’s tax base and an increase in wealthier people getting involved in local nonprofits, Griffith predicted.

“Reported sales are at all-time record. With increased growth is some increased resilience in time of recession,” he said.

Paddy McIlvoy, co-owner of Backwoods Mountain Sports, said he likes the newcomers: “Yes, they’ve exacerbated the housing crisis. But I keep in mind that I moved here and, when I did, people probably said, ‘Ohmigod!’”

The new people have been great for business, he added: “But I have mixed feelings seeing this become a playground for the wealthy.”

McIlvoy said his shop is doing more work with companies that share his environmental values, and he is employing more staff: “Our payroll is larger than it’s ever been and our profitability is larger than it’s ever been.”

Mark Nieves noted that it was the newcomers that gave his business a boost during the pandemic. Nieves said that he and his wife started Independent Goods, which features one-of-a-kind handmade items, in Fall 2016. It was hitting its stride when the pandemic hit.

“New residents boosted us when we needed it the most,” he said. “We’ve seen a drop in (newcomer business), but the new residents are now bringing in friends from California, from Washington.”

The challenge, he said, is maintaining affordable prices for families coming from Twin Falls and Boise. The cost of materials to make the items they carry has gone up, and commercial space to do business in Ketchum is not inexpensive, he said.

“I don’t want to be a high-end shopping town like Aspen,” he added.

The Kneadery’s Dillon Witmer noted the importance of customer service, adding that a meal at the Pioneer Saloon is “more than a meal—it’s an experience” and that Backwoods employees walk customers around the store to make sure they find what they’re looking for.

Witmer said he’s trying to ensure that workers who make sacrifices to live here have time off to go to the symphony during summer and enjoy other amenities.

“The other day I saw a moose walking down Warm Springs—that was awesome!”


Expect a slow start to the summer as people wait for the snow to melt off golf courses and trails, said Scott Fortner, director of Visit Sun Valley. Silver Creek may not be primo until mid-July, he added.

A softening of summer reservations is not alarming—everyone’s seeing that trend, he said. People are concerned about the economy and there’s a lot of interest in traveling to Europe right now.

Fortner noted that lodging properties have been charging more than ever but they’re seeing softening as  competition arises.


The flurry surrounding residential permits is slowing after record activity in 2021, but activity is still strong, particularly in the North Valley, said Griffith.

Permits for building homes fell off the charts during the 2008 recession and recovery started in 2014. Multi-family units are now being built and commercial building, which was practically non-existent in 2010, is strong with two hotel projects and three mixed use buildings coming online.

David Patrie with Benchmark/Galena Engineering said his firm is booked through the summer working on higher end/commercial projects. “Our constraint is talent—we have to outsource some things.”

Paul Conrad of Conrad Brothers Construction said a lot of projects are being pushed to 2024 and 2025. “People don’t want to compete with the craziness out there so they’re saying, ‘Let’s sit 2023 out.’ Home building is starting to subside, but it’s still robust.”

Tim Carter said subcontractors are now easier to get than a year ago: “We’ve ignored smaller remodels the last two years. So, if new building slows down, there may be a backlog in that type of work,” he added, noting he was booked out two years.

Matt Gelso, who works for Kenny Bogue Real Estate, said that five months ago Realtors needed a spread sheet to track available property. Now they can keep it in their head: “There’s a lot of demand and not a lot of supply. it’s the same story every week: ‘I’ll let you know when something comes up.’ ”


The final panel addressed a May 16 vote asking voters in Ketchum, Hailey and Sun Valley to reallocate the existing 1 percent for Air Local Option Tax so that half of the monies would go to provide minimum revenue guarantees for air service and the other half would go to affordable housing projects.

Wendy Jaquet noted that the LOT tax, imposed on things like lodging, took two years to become reality with the help of a Rupert legislator and would likely not get approved by today’s legislature.

“We had to work for it and we’ve got to keep working for it or it could go away,” she said, noting that  even Boise and Twin Falls rely on minimum revenue guarantees for air service.

The LOT tax raised $12 million in 2022. Seventy-five percent of that was paid by visitors.

Lisa Horowitz noted that Hailey has 500 deed restricted units of house, including Balmoral Apartments. Even if voters turn down giving part of the LOT tax to housing, the LOT tax will remain in that city.

Sun Valley City Administrator Jim Keating said his city would use reallocated funds for its tiny homes for first responders at Greenhorn fire station. The city hopes to put four of those units in by October. The city would also use it to build some units on the Ellsworth Inn property that it recently purchased.

The city has absolutely no intention of tearing down that property, he added.

Jade Riley, city administrator for Ketchum, said the city hopes to issue occupancy for the Bluebird Village construction in August 2024. Would-be residents can apply through Blaine County Housing Authority. BCHA recently audited its units to make sure residents met the requirements for living there and it will continue to conduct such audits, he said.

Should Ketchum voters approve the LOT reallocation, the city would use about $700,000 of the $1.48 million to access state and federal resources. It also would use the remainder of the money for affordable housing on five city-owned properties. And it hopes to do what it can to ensure the property built on the site of the Limelight condos which burned last summer remain affordable.

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