WALLACE, Idaho (AP) After decades of a slumping mining industry and struggling local economy, a bit of the old glimmer is returning to Idaho’s Silver Valley.
For residents in the 40-mi. valley between Coeur d’Alene and Montana, higher silver prices and construction growth fueled by tourism and demand for vacation homes is helping resurrect an economy that has limped along since the silver market crashed in 1981.
Leaders from the cities of Wallace and Kellogg say the evidence of resurgence is everywhere. With silver fetching $13 an ounce, the highest price in decades, mining companies are spending money to reopen old mines and explore new sources. At least two companies say they plan to resume or double production by the end of the year.
A resort in Kellogg continues to grow and is taking Wallace with it. Planners say Kellogg has more than 1,000 new condominiums and new homes already on the market or slated for construction. Smelterville is home to the area’s first Wal-Mart Supercenter, and once-vacant Main Street storefronts are now occupied by art galleries, antique stores and coffee shops.
“It’s been an uphill battle and struggle to get back, but where we sit now, with silver coming back and the new development, we’ve certainly turned the corner,” said Mac Pooler, the mayor of Kellogg.
But the economic boomlet has done little to help erase the memories of 1981, the year silver prices plunged and with it, the Silver Valley’s fortunes.
A year later, most of the region’s mines and smelters had closed or significantly cut back operations, putting thousands out of work and devastating an economy built almost entirely on mining.
The Lucky Friday mine stayed open but with a skeleton crew. The region’s biggest employer at the time, the Bunker Hill Mine and smelter in Kellogg, laid off more than 2,000 people. In another decade, the valley lost another 6,000 residents.
“We were spoiled rotten,” said Ronald Garitone, mayor of Wallace. “I grew up in Mullan and if we needed a new ambulance, the Lucky Friday Mine got you a new ambulance. It was a shock to think it all ended.”
In the aftermath, local leaders were forced to look elsewhere for the dollars to support the region. They chose recreation and tourism, focusing initially on Kellogg and plans to expand a city-owned ski hill.
With help from Congress, the resort expanded and built a gondola, which opened in 1990 at the renamed Silver Mountain. The resort was purchased in 1996 by Eagle Crest Partners, which has invested in expanding into a four-season destination with golfing, a water park and condos.
In 2004, construction began on a three-phase condo project. So far, more than 900 units, priced from $100,000 to $800,000, have sold to buyers from the Northwest and California, said Jeff Colburn, general manager of Silver Mountain Resort. He said in coming years there are plans to build a mountaintop golf course and new community on top of a former Superfund site near Kellogg.
“Our goal is to be one of the top destination resorts in the Northwest,” Colburn said.
Local leaders also have focused on cleaning up the mess left behind by miners. Three decades ago, lax environmental rules left the valley looking more like a war zone, with bare and brown hillsides and streams polluted with chemicals.
“We dumped everything in the creek,” said Garitone.
But he and other local leaders say they aren’t worried that the renewed interest in mining will threaten the progress made in cleaning up the waste and contaminated waterways.
“The mining industry has been educated over the years,” Garitone said. “I know there are still staunch environmentalists who would just as soon not see any mining, logging or anything else … but we have to have it whether you like it or not.”