Chobani, Clif Bar: Nothing is too much for the politically connected

Wayne Hoffman Uncategorized

Bianca, an entrepreneur you should know, is toiling away on what she says is a really clever idea. A Twin Falls resident, Bianca’s idea could be a contraption that will make dinner more tasty. Or maybe it will make driving safer. Or computing faster. She’s not quite willing to say. And I’m not good enough at the game of Twenty Questions to narrow it down.

I tell her it doesn’t really matter anyway. Nor does her real name matter to me. It’s not Bianca. What matters is that Bianca’s got a dream, and she’s got energy, ambition and passion. She imagines going to market with a successful product, one that will give her and her family a bright economic future.

So far, Bianca’s company involves her and her husband working out of their home near Twin Falls. But shortly, she expects her company will lease a building and employ another five people. If things go well, she says she could have “dozens” of people on the payroll.

Bianca doesn’t have a lobbyist. Or a professional site selector helping her find a location for her business. Or a politician looking to claim credit for her company’s success. When she calls the state Department of Commerce, no one rolls out the red carpet. The state government employees there are polite enough, but no one has offered to go on “high alert,” offering up resources and connections as they do for companies with thick wallets and big connections.

“I’m not asking them to do that, either,” she said. “I just want to know what the rules are.”

Turns out, and this is what gripes Bianca and me, is that the rules depend on who you are. No one has offered to waive Bianca’s permits or fees. She didn’t even know that was possible. The city’s done that for the new proposed Clif Bar plant, which is coming to Twin Falls. No one is giving Bianca’s applications preferential treatment to make their way items through the process, although that’s what Clif Bar was offered.

Bianca is setting aside money and angling for angel investors, because that’s what she is going to need for her company to make the eventual land and infrastructure investments she’ll need. Meanwhile Clif Bar got a special deal through the government; the Twin Falls Urban Renewal District will come to the company’s aid with $19 million in taxpayer funding for land and infrastructure.

The state Department of Labor is putting up $4 million to help pay for worker training, while Bianca is on her own when it comes to getting her employees tuned to their jobs.

And while the government treats Bianca’s company and Clif Bar differently, the two companies are alike in one regard: Bianca pays for both. The money the Twin Falls Urban Renewal Agency is using comes from Bianca and other local property owners. The money used to pay for employee training? Bianca is one of many employers throughout Idaho who pony up the money for Clif Bar and other companies as part of their unemployment insurance taxes. Other government grants all come from the generous, if completely compulsory, donations made by Bianca and other taxpayers.

“It’s hard enough getting one business off the ground, but it just feels like I’m expected to help get three businesses get going,” she says.

Three? Yes. The Chobani yogurt plant, Bianca’s helping pay for that, too.

Not so long ago, the politicians showed up to applaud their work in bringing Clif Bar to town. Just as they did when Chobani came, they didn’t mention the people paying the bills, people like Bianca.

President Obama was quoted repeatedly in the last election cycle saying, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” In this case, he’s right. Bianca built her neighbor’s businesses. Now, if only the government would stop picking favorites long enough to let her build her own.