The data for Butte County (population 2,771) was particularly puzzling for me. The county showed 8,405 jobs (3x the population!) at an average wage of $70,504 (12th highest out of 3,141 counties in the USA!) but median household income was only $31,828 (2,451 in the USA). Something was going on that wasn’t easily understood without being on the ground.
Michelle Holt, Tammy Stringham and Bob Burroughs of Lost Rivers quickly explained to me what wasn’t evident in the raw data. Michelle told me, “The Idaho National Laboratory (INL), which is part of the Department of Energy and focused upon Atomic Energy is located to the east of Arco, but only 2% of its workers live in Butte County. The Nautilus, the first atomic submarine, had their power system developed here. One of our big issues here is that the Federal Government owns 97% of the land in Custer County and 91% of it in Butte County. That really hurts our tax base.”
Arco was chosen as the site for INL in 1949. At the hotel I was staying at in Arco, a framed copy of a newspaper article on the announcement told of plans for Arco to grow to 5,000 to 10,000 in population because of the new installation. It never happened, with the growth in population occurring to the east in much larger Idaho Falls (population 50,730).
INL covers 890 square miles (570,000 acres) in the mountain desert between Idaho Falls and Arco. You seem to drive forever, never leaving their property in the drive from Idaho Falls to Arco. Arco’s sole claim to fame from INL came on July 17, 1955 when it became the first town in the world to be lighted solely by nuclear power for a short period of time as an experiment. Today the Idaho Science Center is located in Arco, with its distinctive “Submarine in the Desert” displaying the sail from the USS Hawkbill, one of the many nuclear subs that had their power sources perfected at INL.
However, the distorted high salaries of INL act as a deterrent to bringing in new industry. As site selectors we often look at raw data from the U. S. Census before ever making contact with a community. Lost Rivers Valley Economic Development has their hands full in getting the message out that INL is an aberration so that people take a look at this wonderful region that I’ll tell you about in the next couple of days.