Bringing the Economy Home

Car Sales Are Big Business in One Rural Idaho County

Jessica Pupovac / NPR StateImpact

Click on the map to see Shoshone County's top five employers

Shoshone County is known as the Silver Valley because of its long history of metal mining, but mines aren’t the top employer anymore.  A car dealership is.

Dave Smith Motors employs about 400 people, according to data from the state.  Hecla Mining, the operator of the Lucky Friday Mine comes in a close second, with about 300 employees, although that mine is shut down for the next year.

Local economic development specialist Vern Hanson says it might be unusual for a county’s top employer to be a car dealership, but it’s been a boon for the local economy.

“There are more cars on the lot in Kellogg than there are people,” says Mary Kae Repp who does marketing for Dave Smith Motors.  Repp says there are typically 2,500 cars on the Dave Smith Motors lot at any one time. The town of Kellogg has just over 2,000 people.

“There are more cars on the lot in Kellogg than there are people”     -Mary Kae Repp

The business touts itself as the world’s largest Dodge and Chrysler dealer.  Repp says people fly in from all over the country to purchase cars at Dave Smith.  The dealership even has four full time shuttle drivers going to the Spokane, Washington airport on a regular basis to pick up customers.  It’s about a 70 mile drive.

Repp says it is remarkable a car dealer of this size is so successful in the rural north Idaho panhandle.  She attributes the success to a low-profit business model; selling lots of cars for a smaller profit rather than selling a few cars for a higher profit.

She says Dave Smith Motors, which opened in 1965, has been an economic driver in the region for at least the last decade.  Its 400 employees aren’t just selling cars.  The company also has a large support staff for working on titles and contracts, two full service centers, a car wash, a truck-bed liner installation center, an accessories shop, detailers, a tire factory, a sign shop and a tint shop.

A County in Transition

Jimmy Wayne / Flickr

A view of Kellogg, Idaho from I-90

So how did this car dealer become the biggest local employer? Well, you have to understand the county’s makeup.

Shoshone County is spread across more than 2,600 acres of densely forested, rugged mountain terrain along the eastern side of Idaho’s panhandle.  For outsiders, towns like Kellogg and Wallace might be better known as a place to stop and stretch your legs between Spokane, Washington and Missoula, Montana if you drive along I-90.

The county’s population is small.  Census data estimates fewer than 13,000 people live in Shoshone County. The population has been on the decline since at least the 1970s when almost 20,000 people lived there.

The unemployment rate in Shoshone County hasn’t been in the single-digits since September 2008.  Hanson says it’s a constant challenge to attract new companies to the valley.  He says he’s combating a stigma associated with the area being known as a Superfund site and because of the landscape, there just aren’t many available open, flat spaces for building.

Mining Bust

“The biggest change was the mines,” Hanson says.  “It started with [the closure of] Bunker Hill and it was a domino effect and we lost just about everything.  The ones that did remain were down to so few people it really wasn’t a viable occupation.”  The Bunker Hill mine in Kellogg closed in 1982, taking with it 2,000 jobs.

“The biggest change was the mines”  – Vern Hanson

The area has also lost a lot of jobs in the timber industry.  Hanson comes from a family of loggers, he father and brother were both in the business.  His brother is now a truck driver.

Hanson says with the slow economy, he now focused his time on trying to keep existing businesses from leaving.  “That’s about all we can do right now,” Hanson says.

It’s unclear if or how the mining and timber industries will make a resurgence in the Silver Valley.  As commodity prices increase, the likelihood of more mining activity increases.  But what’s pretty clear is Dave Smith Motors will continue to carve out its niche in Shoshone County’s economy.


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