Tom Richards saw the dire economic forecast etched in the trees that fed his livelihood.
Dennis Wheeler had a mind to mine some goodwill for his company.
And Duane Hagadone turned a Spokane lunch into a launching pad that, 30 years later, is still paying dividends throughout Kootenai County and beyond.
These three titans of business — Hagadone from The Hagadone Corp., Richards from Idaho Forest Industries, and Wheeler from Coeur d’Alene Mines — founded Jobs Plus, Inc., the region’s economic development agency, in the spring of 1987.
One lunch led to another, and the rest is history.
Hagadone was too busy to take on more projects that spring of long ago. He was running this newspaper and 16 others. He was on the road at least three weeks out of every four. But when the phone rang, he couldn’t hang up on a bigger problem.
“I got a call from a good friend in Spokane inviting me to a business lunch to help promote Spokane,” Hagadone said. “Spokane was in trouble — no growth — as was Coeur d’Alene.
“They’d invited me to come and they wanted to include us, but everything was to go to Spokane. And I got to thinking, what the hell?”
That’s pretty much what Tom Richards was thinking, too.
Richards, who was running Idaho Forest Industries with his identical twin and co-owner, John, didn’t need his Stanford degree or MBA from Harvard to see what was happening.
“The economy of Kootenai County was just in terrible condition,” Richards said. “In those days it was virtually all forest products, and the forest products industry was in trouble.
“The feeling was pretty universal that something had to be done.”
Wheeler, Silver Valley born and bred and a proud University of Idaho law school grad who had taken over as president of Coeur d’Alene Mines, saw the area’s unrealized potential with a couple of his colleagues.
“We said, ‘You know, it looks to us like this is a community with great prospects, but doggone it, it’s kind of quiet,” Wheeler said. “We were wondering what the heck Coeur [the mining company’s nickname] could do to get a springboard.”
Hagadone, Wheeler and Richards had lunch in the owner’s dining room of the new Coeur d’Alene Resort. They agreed they needed to create an economic development program and committed some seed money.
“We wanted to raise $500,000 and each of us took three key businesses,” asking for $60,000 commitments from those businesses over a five-year span, Hagadone said.
“We also decided we were going to do it in a hurry,” he added.
And they did. Three days after that Resort lunch, he said, the $500,000 had been committed.
Suddenly, a cool million sounded a whole lot better.
The initiative was announced on the top of the front page of the March 11, 1987 Coeur d’Alene Press. Under the headline “Entrepreneurs plan development effort,” the article opens with an elbow right to Spokane’s ribs:
A $1 million private initiative to attract businesses to Kootenai County will create more jobs than similar efforts in Spokane, Coeur d’Alene Mines President Dennis Wheeler predicted Tuesday.
“We’re going to beat them,” Wheeler told about 50 people huddled at the Holiday Inn. Coeur d’Alene’s “heavy-hitters” unexpectedly unveiled their intention to market the county, and help turn around a county that has lost thousands of jobs in the 1980s.
The story goes on to name the initial board of directors: Hagadone, Richards, Wheeler, Coeur d’Alene Mayor Ray Stone, County Commissioner Frank Henderson, Mr. Steak owner Charlie Nipp, Jon Hippler from First Federal, Randy Teall from the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce, with Harry Perry of GTE acting as interim board chairman.
It outlines how the first $500,000 was committed and refers to a “County Rally for Jobs” at noon on March 30 at the Resort. Organizers hoped to attract up to 1,500 people.
On March 17, a front-page Press story announced the new organization’s name: Jobs Plus, Inc., which would remain the agency’s moniker for three decades. The story also pointed out that then-Kootenai Medical Center was loaning its ace fundraiser, Jim Faucher, to help bring in the remaining $500,000.
The March 31 Press indicates that the rally boosted funds to $700,000 but quotes Wheeler as saying the remaining $300,000 had to be raised by May 1. And so it was.
“When we knew we had it, we had a celebration and invited everybody back,” Hagadone recalled. “The next area we were focused on was hiring a director.”
Smooth sailing, right?
“We had a hell of a time,” Hagadone said. “We just couldn’t find anybody.”
Katie Brodie has long been part of the Hayden Lake Country Club scene. She’s been a devoted employee of the Richards brothers, a former Kootenai County commissioner, sister of former NFL all-pro quarterback John Brodie, and now North Idaho’s point person for Gov. Butch Otter. Largely because of her work with the Richards brothers, she was also front and center at the birth of Jobs Plus.
“I came home from spring break and everybody was talking about it,” she said. “I was running the Republican headquarters in Coeur d’Alene then, so I had a lot of time on my hands.”
Brodie remembers the thrill of raising a million dollars and the excitement of advertising for the first leader in Jobs Plus history.
“They got 60 responses and brought three in,” Brodie said. “They were all horrible.”
According to Brodie, a consultant said the person they’re looking for is probably retired, 60ish, wants to play golf, maybe worked for AT&T.
“And John Richards said, ‘I know the guy. His name is Bob Potter,’” Brodie said. “Potter interviewed and was offered the job on the spot.”
But there was a string attached.
“He said, ‘Does the little honey go with it?’” Brodie recalled with a laugh. “The little honey was me.”
With Brodie as his only employee — “She and Bob worked just hand in glove — a great fit,” Tom Richards said — Potter immediately brandished the skills and qualifications that had endeared him to that first Jobs Plus board. One was work ethic. Hagadone said he believed Potter headed almost immediately to California for a month, basically going door-to-door to drum up business.