A number of localities have tried to recreate the magic that resulted in locations such as Silicon Valley in California and Route 128 in Massachusetts. Now it's Idaho's turn.
More than 100 Idaho business executives and politicians want to turn some 79,000 acres of land in Idaho, about 20 miles northwest of Boise, into the Eagle-Star High-Tech Corridor, named after the two cities involved.
Part of what made Silicon Valley successful is that it became known as a "cluster" -- companies in the same industry or otherwise linked through customer, supplier, or similar relationships, representing a critical mass of skill, information, relationship, and infrastructure in a given field -- as described by Michael Porter in his seminal 1995 article "The Competitive Advantage to the Inner City" in Harvard Business Review. This builds a critical mass of such companies, not only giving them more resources but giving workers more choices in employment.
It's the lack of this cluster factor, which the ESTech project is trying to correct, that has limited growth in Boise, because it has primarily a couple of major high-tech employers: Hewlett-Packard and Micron, which have each gone through layoffs this year.
Proponents note that "the region's temperate climate and multitude of outdoor activities; the State of Idaho's progressive business posture; its sound, high-tech educational infrastructure; and solid, regional venture capitalist opportunities," calling it "an attractive place for the companies' leaders, workers and families to work and play." Richard Florida's book, The Rise of the Creative Class, also suggested that members of what he called "the creative class" -- including high-tech workers -- would migrate to smaller cities with good outdoor recreational opportunities.
The Brookings Institute is also looking at the Mountain West as the next area for high-tech innovation, but noting that the areas may require help in the following four areas: infrastructure, innovation, human capital, and quality places. And unfortunately for Idaho, it's not listed as one of the five places Brookings sees as most ripe for high-tech development.
In the area of human capital, Idaho suffers from a lack of skilled workers -- which TechConnect, an Idaho public-private partnership, found in a 2008 survey to be the second biggest problem for high-tech companies in the state. (The first was providing health care.) Until the recent economic unpleasantness, Idaho enjoyed one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation -- great for the employees, but bad for the employers.
In addition, while the region is interested in attracting the high-tech community, it is not clear to what degree the state is also interested. Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter this year shut down the Governor's Science and Technology Advisory Council, and TechConnect itself has retained funding only at the last minute for the last several budgeting cycles. A number of the state's part-time legislators are in the agricultural industry, and some long-time Idaho residents see high-tech as attracting more outsiders -- perhaps even, eek, Californians.