Smith Optics' Departure From Central Idaho Will Have Economic Ripple Effect

Oct 24, 2014

Credit Manoosh26 / Flickr Creative Commons

The Wood River Valley is bracing for the loss of one of its largest employers. Ski equipment maker Smith Optics is one of the area’s top 10 employers and one of the biggest private-sector employers, according Harry Griffith, director of Sun Valley Economic Development - a nonprofit focused on the Blaine County economy.

We told you this week that Smith Optics is moving its corporate headquarters from Ketchum. If you’re an Idaho skier you probably know the Smith story: Back in the 60s, Bob Smith invented double-paned goggles that reduce fogging. He built the company into a multimillion dollar, international ski-wear company based in the Wood River Valley.

Bob Smith died in 2012 and Smith Optics is now owned by an Italian company. That company plans to relocate most or all of its 85 Idaho employees over the next year. Harry Griffith says that will have a significant impact on the area. 

“Most of these jobs are professional jobs that pay between $50,000 and $100,000 plus a year, [and] come with a good benefit package,” Griffith says. “So they’re a very important part of our labor pool.”

Ketchum’s mayor, Nina Jonas, says losing those 85 jobs will ripple painfully through the community.

“Their children are enrolled in school here, they dine here, they shop here, they sport and recreate here,” Jonas says.

Jonas is worried both as mayor, and as a restaurant owner. But it goes beyond the immediate effects of losing so many good salaries. She says economic imbalance is a major concern for her.

“At the same time that we’re predominately a tourist economy, we have to have this other element in our community, to have that diversity, to have a year-round population,” she says.

The valley does still have a non-tourist side to its economy. But just a few years ago, bike and ski equipment maker Scott left the area. Jonas says losing that company, and now Smith, sends a message about how the Wood River Valley needs to do economic development.

She wants to think small. She says the companies that will stay, are owner-operated businesses that could work from anywhere but want to be in the Wood River Valley for the lifestyle.

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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