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Idaho Business Out Loud interview: Shawn Barigar, president and CEO of Twin Falls Area Chamber of Commerce

TFchamber 03/12/20

Shawn Barigar

Shawn Barigar has seen a lot of changes over the years in his beloved Magic Valley. The Buhl native can remember when agriculture was the primary industry in the area, long before Chobani and Clif Bar brought new opportunities ranging from food science to manufacturing.

During his long career in public service, Barigar — the former mayor of Twin Falls and current president and CEO of the Twin Falls Area Chamber of Commerce — helped shepherd that growth while also keeping a focus on quality of life for area residents.

On Feb. 28, the Idaho Business Review named Barigar a 2020 CEO of Influence in recognition of his many accomplishments.

Barigar recently sat down with the Idaho Business Out Loud podcast to reflect on the Magic Valley’s growth and look toward its future.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and then we will launch right in.

I’m Shawn Barigar. I’m the president and CEO of the Twin Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. I’ve been there about 15 years and was raised in the Magic Valley, grew up in Buhl. I also serve on the Twin Falls City Council and most recently was the mayor for the past four years.

How is Twin Falls handling growth, particularly in infrastructure like roads and bridges?

I think we’ve been fortunate the past eight or 10 years. We’ve been paying attention to infrastructure needs as we’ve been growing, so we didn’t wait for growth to happen to us. We’ve been attentive to road needs, water, sewer. Our economic development has helped us with that. Back in 2011 when Chobani was looking for a location across the western United States, they selected Twin Falls. Their investment in our ability to use urban renewal as a tool for tax increment financing helped us to build the infrastructure to meet not only their needs but basically everything between the wastewater treatment plant and Chobani. So it opened up about 300 more acres in the city for other development and put that infrastructure in place. We really tried to use economic development as an investment tool for the greater good, not just for those individual projects.

Twin Falls recently was designated as a metropolitan area. What are the ramifications of that?

Downtown Twin Falls. Photo by Liz Patterson Harbauer

It is an interesting process. There is not a federal checklist that says, ‘Congratulations on being a metropolitan area. Here are all the things you need to do.’ It’s a little bit of a ‘wait and see’ approach.

We knew this was coming. We actually suspected that we would have been designated metropolitan at the last census because it’s not just your corporate boundary, it can include neighboring communities. And so we thought, OK, well if you put Twin and Kimberly together, we probably are at that. We were not designated at the last census, so we knew it was coming with 2020. The designation from a marketing and PR standpoint — we think that’s going to be a huge advantage for us because you tend to show up on more lists because now you’re in the data set.

When economists and economic development professionals are helping companies site, they can go through that data and we’ll show up. Now it’s going to bring some new responsibilities as well. Public transportation is one that we’ve been working with some consultants on assessing what is the best model for Twin Falls, knowing that that’s going to take some time to implement. We’re going to have issues with stormwater retention and some other federal requirements that come with that. But we also then get a different bucket of federal money that we can tap for some of those projects.

You have been leveraging urban renewal and Opportunity Zones. What are your thoughts to share with other cities doing that?

Urban renewal has been a tool we’ve used in Twin Falls for decades. It got the most attention with Chobani and Clif Bar because they are brand name recognized companies. But we’ve been using urban renewal clear back into the early ’80s. We’ve used that tool to provide infrastructure, not only for those individual companies or investors that are in that area but really benefiting that whole area around it. In our downtown core, we have urban renewal as a tool, and it’s also designated an Opportunity Zone.

So we have our first Opportunity Zone project that will kick off this spring. It’s an old building on Main Avenue. It’s going to get torn down, and investors are coming in and putting in a floor of retail, a floor of office and four floors of housing. It’ll be kind of the first time that we have apartment-style living right in the core of our downtown. So those two tools together helped with that. The investors also are getting an advantage because it’s in a census tract that has a high poverty rate. So they are able to use new markets tax credits because they’re a federal tax credit. So they’re able to chip away at their investment costs. And for us, it provides infrastructure. It provides that energy that spurs development around it.

There is a lot on the horizon. What changes have you seen over your term as mayor and the time that you’ve been in Twin Falls?

Twin Falls is certainly growing. I recall 30 years ago when I was in high school in Buhl and coming over and there were still ag fields on Blue Lakes. So I think we’ve had pretty slow and steady growth. It feels explosive, but it’s really only about 2% population growth a year. We’ve had some large employers that have come in with Chobani and Clif, but now you see a little more steady commercial development and really a diversity in housing. That has been the new development trend there. No longer is it just single-family homes. People want townhomes and apartments and condos and that opportunity to have a good job and be in the heart of stuff that’s going on and not have to mess with your yard on the weekends because you want to be in the mountains or down the river.

Twin Falls is becoming known as a food processing center. What else are you doing to grow that industry or to bring other industries to Twin Falls?

Historically we have tried to be a little bit of everything. If you look beyond just Twin Falls to the entire Magic Valley, we have a plastics sector. You have Dart Container. It used to be Solo Cups. They have a facility in Twin Falls that makes plastic grocery bags over in Jerome. But when Chobani came looking in 2011, I think it was a chance for us to say that we’re built on agriculture. That’s why the Magic Valley exists in the first place. And we sort of doubled down on that and said, “How do we embrace that?” It’s not just to grow the crops here and send them someplace else.

In the ’70s and ’80s, we started seeing potato processing and more product-based. Now really with Glanbia, Chobani, Clif Bar, Clear Springs Foods over in Buhl, there’s a lot of research and development going on — food science, figuring out how to do more with less, feed more people in a more environmentally friendly way. So we’ve really embraced that whole food sector as an opportunity for us to grow. That’s spinning off some other opportunities though too. You have packaging that you have to have for your yogurt and some of these other more diverse types of industries, but really all kind of wrapped around food.

Speaking of research, Chobani has opened a research innovation center. What kind of impact does that having on Magic Valley?

Chobani recently celebrated the opening of a new research facility in Twin Falls. Photo courtesy of Chobani

So first and foremost, I think it’s really helping them diversify their product mix. Chobani came to the Magic Valley primarily because of the milk, but now they’re getting into more plant-based products. And in order to do that, they needed to have their scientists in a place where they can work on those. And so their new innovation center is basically putting all of their food science people in one place. And that’s here in Twin Falls now. Initially, it was in New York; now it’s all here. I think they have about 40 food scientists who work in them.

These are really high paying specialty jobs, and now they’re available in a place like Twin Falls. So that’s helping them grow as a company. But we also have that with Glanbia and they have their Cheese Innovation Center that’s in downtown Twin Falls, which is basically a small-scale cheese plant. They work with their customers, develop new flavors, new processes, and then they can upscale that to their main factories.

Clif Bar is looking at new product development as well. And then we really have long-term companies like Clear Springs Foods that does trout processing. They do everything from raising the trout to what to do with the waste at the end. So they kind of have that whole value-added chain of research going on.

So these things are bringing more jobs to Twin Falls. Is that workforce coming from Magic Valley or are you getting outside talent migrating into Magic Valley?

Snake River Canyon Rim Trail. Photo by Teya Vitu

I think like every other community in the United States, we struggle with not enough warm bodies, let alone people with the skill set. So our unemployment’s very low and has been for many years. We have strong partnerships between our industry and the College of Southern Idaho. Even our high schools are trying to create that talent pipeline of opportunities that are there for those young people.

We also are focused on the quality of life piece. Our trail system is now 9 miles along the Snake River Canyon and we have parks. We’re investing in walkability, livability and mixed-use development because those are the kinds of things that people are looking for. No longer do people say, ‘There’s a job here, I’m going to go to the job.’ They say, ‘What’s the community like? Could I live there and can I have a job that helps support the lifestyle I want to have?’

These partnerships are trying to look at how we are providing that whole picture because the workers are needed for these various companies.

I’m going to switch gears a little bit and talk about something else that I wanted to ask you about. A couple of years ago, Twin Falls got international attention about refugees. How are things on that front now, especially with changes on a federal level? How did you feel when Gov. Brad Little said the state would still take refugees?

I think what’s important to remember, even though we got a lot of attention a couple of years ago about this, is that we’ve actually had a refugee resettlement program since the 1980s, and really it grew out of a humanitarian effort, helping people who are dealing with traumatic situations in their lives that they had to escape to save their lives. So we’ve had a program for a long time. It’s under the federal program.

Our employers have been strong advocates for that program because one of the requirements of the refugee resettlement program is those folks have to have a job within six weeks of being resettled in the U.S. So we have employers that have found that that’s a good quality workforce. And they’ve been supportive of that for years.

It grew a lot of attention when we had a specific incident that occurred that kind of put the refugee resettlement program on the radar. It was also at the same time as the ramp-up to the presidential elections. So then-candidate Trump was very focused on the immigration issues. It all got kind of interwoven. It was a little surreal to be the mayor and get phone calls from The New York Times. And Breitbart sent a reporter who lived in Twin Falls for six weeks as we dealt with this specific incident.

It wasn’t so pleasant at the time, but I think it raised the awareness of the entire community of the value of the refugee program, not only from an economic perspective, but I think that humanitarian welcoming, caring for your neighbor kind of sense. And so the program has been better supported by the community.

However, at the same time, the new administration has really diminished the number of refugees coming. Last year we had something like 62 refugees who were resettled. You know, historically it’s been 150 to 200 a year. So it’s a valuable part of our community. As communities that are dealing with 2% and 3% unemployment, there just aren’t enough people for the jobs that are available. So we have to look elsewhere, and part of that is immigration, having a good pathway for the right people to come and integrate into the communities.

That’s really fascinating that it’s helping solve the workforce issue.

It’s certainly helping to address it. I actually saw a statistic from the U.S. Chamber this week: there are 0.88 people for every one job available right now. So there are more jobs open than there is available workforce. That’s a staggering statistic, I think. And we have to be more open to allowing immigration to help fill those needs.

To wrap up, what are some projects that you’re looking forward to or excited about?

In this coming year, we’re going to see a lot of activity in our downtown and south of Twin Falls. We have the 160 Main project, which is the retail office and housing on Main Avenue. And then we have a Gem State Dairy processors, which are local dairy farmers who are now getting into the processing business. So they’ll be making a dairy product, about a 200,000-square-foot facility and a couple of hundred jobs they’ll be creating in Twin Falls.

And so it’s focused around that food area that we’re good at. We’re excited to see them come on, and it’s just really positive stuff happening. Yes, we have our growing pains just like other communities do, but we’re trying to be very attentive to investing in the infrastructure that we need to serve the growth and really to improve the quality of life that those of us who are longtime residents.