Idaho is one of a handful of states where the unemployment rate has gone up since the national recession ended more than two years ago. Numbers have soared to their highest levels in rural places, among them Camas County in central Idaho. This summer, local unemployment approached 17 percent. That’s a number that has left Fairfield, population 416 and the only town in Camas County, struggling for survival.
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 a business park just east of the town’s main street.
On a recent visit to the site, the town’s former mayor, David Hanks, pointed out the piping that’s in place, allowing for water and sewer access. But the park isn’t populated by buildings and retail businesses. Instead, there are long, broad rows of hay bales, covered in plastic tarpaulin, tied tight to keep out the moisture. Local farmers are putting the open space to use. “You know, it’s really a great place, actually, if you’re going to store hay,” Hanks said. “This is a fantastic area, nice and level and right near the highway.”
It’d a tidy example of how Fairfield’s fortunes have shifted since the start of the downturn. The town’s potential for growth hinged on the nearby Wood River Valley, with its tourists and wealthy part-time residents. Now, instead of watching Fairfield prosper, many in this town are concerned for its survival, and their own.
On a Friday afternoon, Kelli Fox is at the park with her four-year-old son, Micah. Like many people in this small community, she wears a lot of hats. She was elected to the city council two years ago, runs a small florist shop downtown, and works for the Forest Service in the summertime. Her ties to Fairfield run deep. In spite of all that, she and her husband have found themselves wondering whether they’ll be able to stay. “I’ve never really considered leaving Fairfield until just recently, and that’s – that’s kind of disheartening to me,” she said.
Fox says if they do go, it won’t be a matter of choice. Her husband, Aaron, is a builder and woodworker. Last year he was out of work for two months. “For us right now, we’re job-by-job,” she said. “He’s working on one house right now, and as soon as that’s done, it’s done. We have to find the next job. So, there’s that lack of consistency.”
Fox says that, looking around her town, she knows she’s not alone. Unemployment is different in a place like this. It’s personal. It’s a count of jobless friends and neighbors. “It’s kind of funny, because okay, 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. We’re hoping we don’t ever get to that point.”
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 daunting pile-up of home foreclosures. For longtime residents, who love this town, it’s heartbreaking. One of them is Fred Marolf, who has watched his town’s troubles unfold from his perch as a local real estate agent. “You get to be friends with a lot of folks,” he said. “Really close friends. And to see them getting in a bind and being hurt, it affects you big time.”
Marolf says people ask him, sometimes, what’s so special about Fairfield, and he tells them to visit a spot just outside of town. Then, maybe they’ll understand. “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 and just sit up there and look at it – it’ll get to you, too,” he said.
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 Camas lilies in bloom that they look like a rolling ocean. Since the recession started, one of Marolf’s sons and a grandson have had to leave Fairfield to find work. But Fred Marolf says he’s here for good. “It’s been our home for 45 years now, ” he said. “Raised all our kids here. And we just love it here. And we’ll never leave.” He’s near tears. “Now I’m getting like David!” he says, laughing.
David is, of course, David Hanks, who speaks about Fairfield with the passion and conviction of an old fashioned soap-box salesman. He’s Fairfield’s former mayor now. He stepped down earlier this year because the tight economy was affecting his business, and he needed to spend more time at work.
For Fairfield, even Hanks’ leadership has become a casualty of the downturn. Now, he says, as he looks around his town, he tries to see a way forward. “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 two or 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, ‘Okay, how do we get through this now?’”
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.