Poor Economy Defers Small Idaho Town's Dream Unemployment is especially stubborn in rural places. In central Idaho, the recession has left Fairfield struggling for survival. Not long ago, it was poised for growth, but this summer, unemployment topped 16 percent.
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Poor Economy Defers Small Idaho Town's Dream

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Poor Economy Defers Small Idaho Town's Dream

Poor Economy Defers Small Idaho Town's Dream

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And while the European debt crisis deepens, new jobless numbers last week actually showed a drop in unemployment here in the U.S. But with the jobless rate at 8.6 percent, people are still struggling and the unemployment crisis is especially stubborn in rural areas. Drawing good jobs to small towns isn't easy and once the jobs leave, they're hard to bring back. In central Idaho, the recession has left one small town, Fairfield, fighting for survival. State Impact Idaho's Molly Messick has this story.

MOLLY MESSICK, BYLINE: To really understand the kind of change that's gone on in Fairfield since the start of the recession, you have to look back a little further, about a decade. That's when the town got some gumption and decided it wanted to grow. A key part of the plan was this spot, a business park.

DAVID HANKS: If you walk over here, you can see we've already got infrastructure in place to get water and sewer out to this area.

MESSICK: David Hanks was the mayor then. He says that once this little town of 400 people dared to dream big, things fell into place. It got a new school and improved sewer and power infrastructure. A developer put in 18 new houses. Then there was the business park. Hanks still envisions what it could be, a mix of retail, warehouse and manufacturing space. Instead, the lot is mostly vacant, and local farmers are putting it to a different use.

HANKS: You know, it's really a great place, actually, if you're going to store hay.

MESSICK: The rows of bales are long and perhaps 30 feet high. It's a tidy example of how Fairfield's fortunes have shifted. The town's potential for growth hinged on the nearby Wood River Valley, with its world-famous skiing and wealthy tourists. People in Fairfield hoped for spillover from the valley's prosperity, but the economic downturn changed all of that.

There's less building, less expansion and less incentive to invest in a rural town. Now, instead of watching Fairfield flourish, local people worry for its future and their own.

KELLI FOX: Are you going up the slide?

MESSICK: Kelli Fox is at the park with her 4-year-old son, Micah. She wears a lot of hats. She serves on the city council, runs a small florist shop downtown and works for the Forest Service in the summertime. In spite of all that, she and her husband have found themselves wondering whether they'll be able to stay.

FOX: I've never really considered leaving Fairfield until just recently, and that's kind of disheartening to me.

MESSICK: Fox says that if they do go, it won't be a matter of choice. Her husband is a builder and woodworker. Last year, he was out of work for two months. Looking around her town, Fox says she knows they're not alone. Unemployment is different in a place like this. It's a count of jobless friends and neighbors.

FOX: It's kind of funny 'cause, OK, I could tell you everybody on my block who doesn't have jobs, but actually most of the houses on my block are vacant because those people lost their houses, and that's terrifying to me.

MESSICK: Here is the troubling state of things for Fairfield. Jobs have dried up and people have left. School enrollment has dropped and there's a pileup of home foreclosures. For longtime residents, all of this is heartbreaking. Fred Marolf is 73 and a local real estate agent.

FRED MAROLF: You get to be friends with a lot of folks, really close friends, and to see them get in a bind and being hurt, it affects you big time.

MESSICK: Marolf says that when people ask him what's so special about Fairfield, he tells them to visit a spot just outside of town.

MAROLF: If you go up here on Johnson Hill and look over this prairie, about any time of the day, but especially early in the mornings or late in the evenings, it'll get to you, too.

MESSICK: He describes a broad view of open land, bordered by the south edge of the Sawtooth Mountains. There's a river running toward Magic Reservoir, and in the spring, so many cannas lilies in bloom that they look like a rolling ocean. Recently, one of Marolf's sons and a grandson have left Fairfield to find work. But Fred Marolf says he's here for good.

MAROLF: It's been our home for 45 years now, and raised all our kids here. And we just love it here, and we'll never leave. Now we (unintelligible) David.

MESSICK: David is, of course, David Hanks, who speaks about Fairfield with the passion of an old-fashioned soap-box salesman. He's Fairfield's former mayor now. He stepped down earlier this year because the economy was affecting his business, and he needed to spend more time at work. Now, he says, as he looks around his town, he tries to see a way forward.

HANKS: When you go into a town that's even small, and you see it hustling and bustling, you're like, wow, this is a great community. Look at this place. And then you go into it, you know, two, three years later and you go, what in the world has happened? It's a tough, tough thing, I think, as a community leader, to say, OK, how do we get through this now?

MESSICK: David Hanks says he still believes in Fairfield. Maybe the benefit of being a little town, he says, is that little towns can be nimble. And when the economy does finally start to recover, Fairfield will be there, ready to take advantage of it. For NPR News, I'm Molly Messick.


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