Idaho’s Economy Gets High Marks in Best States Rankings

After Sachi Weinkle’s oldest daughter graduated from high school in 2018 and headed to college, Weinkle started thinking about her own future and eventually her retirement.

Should she stay put in Sonoma County, California, where she worked in sales and marketing for a company that operates brain injury rehabilitation facilities, or relocate?

[READ: U.S. News Releases Best States Rankings for 2021]

Weinkle ended up moving to Boise, Idaho, in 2019 where she was able to keep her job and had the bonus of a more affordable cost of living and a host of outdoor recreation opportunities that fit her lifestyle — biking along the Boise River Greenbelt, hiking in the nearby mountains, or tubing in the river.

“It’s just such a rat race (in California). The traffic is bad, everyone is running around, no one takes time to talk to you, even your neighbors,” Weinkle said. “I just felt a lighter energy here. The people are much more laid back, it’s a slower pace, it’s clean. I just felt happier when I was here, even though I didn’t know a soul.”

Weinkle is just one of thousands of people who have flocked to Idaho, driving a population increase of more than 2% in the past year, the largest net migration of any state in the country. Between 2010 and 2020, Idaho’s population grew by 16.5%, or 259,331 people, according to the latest Census data.

In the process, it has helped fuel an economic boom, with Idaho taking the No. 1 spot for its economic growth, according to the 2021 U.S. News Best States rankings. The state also posted strong showings for its business environment, growth and employment.

Even as states saw their economies grinding to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic, Idaho was one of a handful that saw continued growth.

“You would think it would be a major disruption but (in-migration) continued unabated,” says Sam Wolkenhauer, an economist with the Idaho Department of Labor. “The conditions of living with social distancing and work from home, they made Idaho’s quality-of-life advantages even stronger. If you’re working from home and gyms are closed and parks are closed and restaurants are closed, suburban life is even more appealing.”

Unemployment ticked up from 2.7% in March to 11.6% after the pandemic struck, but has since fallen back to 3.8% in December, the most recent numbers available, but Wolkenhauer said Idaho has recovered faster than most states and has benefited from the shift to telework.

The growth in the state isn’t limited to Boise. Coeur d’Alene, 40 minutes east of Spokane, Washington, in the Idaho panhandle has seen its population grow by 10% in the past five years. As most job markets were contracting during the pandemic, Idaho Falls, in the eastern part of the state, saw non-farm employment grow by nearly 5% in 2020, top in the nation among communities tracked by the U.S. Department of Labor. Twin Falls, in southern Idaho, was fifth with 1.9% job growth.

[MORE: State Economies Weathered the Coronavirus Storm but the Damage Lives On]

That is in large part due to basic quality-of-life factors, Wolkenhauer says. In the U.S. News rankings, Idaho finished with the 10th-best crime and corrections ranking and the 12th-highest rating for environmental quality — things like clean air and water.

Bill Connors of the Boise Metro Chamber says the Idaho Legislature has chipped away at the corporate income tax and individual income tax over the last dozen years, keeping rates attractive to businesses and workers.

“Our state government is stable. It’s not doing wild shifts politically,” Connors says. “Yes, it’s conservative and business-friendly, but it’s stable.”

Indeed, according to the U.S. News rankings, Idaho ranks fourth in the country in fiscal stability, based on the state’s overall credit rating and its ability to balance its budget and fund its state pensions.

“It is not surprising Idaho is leading the nation in economic momentum,” says Gov. Brad Little. “Years of fiscal conservatism and regulatory restraint, combined with quick action during the pandemic and the good actions of Idahoans to protect their neighbors, have positioned Idaho for future prosperity.”

That rapid influx of new people — in the Boise area in particular — has put a squeeze on the housing market. Inventory is scarce, says Jennifer Horsley Stacey, who has sold homes for 16 years in the Boise market.

Today she sees bidding wars and cash offers with buyers from California, Washington and Oregon in fierce competition with 15 offers coming in $60,000 or more over the asking price for that rare available home.

Last year, Stacey sold a town home in Boise for $210,000; this year, a town home nearby with the same floor plan went for $400,000.

In December, the Boise Board of Realtors reported the average home price in Ada County, home to Boise and the rapidly growing suburb of Meridian, reached $425,000, an 18.3% increase from just a year earlier.

For many of those moving into the region, that still might seem like a bargain. In the San Francisco Bay area, the average home costs more than $1 million, according to the California Association of Realtors. And in King County and the area surrounding Seattle, the average price is nearly $750,000 according to data from the University of Washington.

Still, the sharp increase has put a pinch on some longtime Idaho homeowners who have seen their property taxes spike with values, prompting the Legislature to consider forms of property tax relief.

The rising prices haven’t slowed demand, Stacey says. When a new home comes on the market, offers are immediate. And every person she helps find a home, she said, attracts four or five others — friends and family members looking for a new locale.

That was the case for Weinkle. About a year after she relocated to Idaho, her parents left California for the Gem State and she anticipates her oldest daughter will settle there once she finishes nursing school.

“It’s just a different lifestyle,” Weinkle says. “Everybody who comes to visit me wants to move here.”

More from U.S. News

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