So how many of us are happy with Boise’s growth?
The delegates from Lexington, Kentucky, all 180 of them, arrived in Boise Tuesday afternoon to learn what makes Boise cool. Really. The first session in their three-day fact-finding tour was a discussion on “What makes Boise ‘cool.’”
The conversation quickly turned to growth. Of course. Because this is Boise, and, these days, every conversation seems to veer in that direction.
“You’ve probably seen that Boise is the No. 1 city in top 10 lists,” said Mike Francis, owner of Payette Brewing Co. and part of the three-person coolness panel. “We seem to be getting in national publications everywhere. It’s a good-bad thing.”
Sure, it’s been great for business. Francis was in Sacramento recently talking to a beer distributor, he said, and all of Boise's positive press coverage has allowed him to “sell more beer because Idaho is cool. We’re not just this weird redneck state.”
However, and it’s a big however, there are drawbacks. Like housing prices.
“I was at a few Cinco de Mayo parties, and the conversations were about how expensive housing is,” Francis said. “Putting Boise on the map like this has been awesome. It’s also a little scary.”
Megan Stoll, cofounder of Boise's Treefort Music Fest and another panelist testifying to the hipness level, chimed in. “A double-edged sword” is how she described the City of Trees’ rising national profile. And it wasn’t hard to figure out which side of the blade she’s feeling now.
“It kind of gets you to the point, ‘… what do I do now?’ I can’t afford to buy a house, because everything’s going for cash and above asking price,” she lamented, with a small burst of profanity, after singing the city’s praises. “My salary won’t let me afford it. … I want to see growth in Boise. I just hope that salaries go along with that.”
Lexington and Boise have more in common than just demographics. They are midsized college towns, largely white, with low costs of living and even lower unemployment rates. They are both struggling with growth, arguing about whether to build up or out, their citizens fretting over rising home prices and dodging downtown construction sites, road closures, soaring cranes.
A Kentucky delegation, members of the Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce, has visited 34 cities in the last 45 years in search of new solutions to various municipal problems. Charleston, South Carolina, has been a four-time destination. Austin was the focus of two separate trips.
This is the group’s first Boise foray, a Lexingtonian search for some civic inspiration.
“We’re a second-tier city, and so is Boise,” Bob Quick, president and chief executive of the city’s chamber, said in an interview. “You have a reputation for being a cool city. … We have changed dramatically because of the cities we have visited. This is a serious trip. It’s going to have take-aways.”
First, though, they had to figure out just where Boise is, laughed Karen Hill, board chair of the organization, which is also known as Commerce Lexington. She was joking. Mostly.
“We’re going to talk about what makes Boise cool,” Hill told the group, which assembled at JUMP (short for Jack's Urban Meeting Place, a creativity and events center built by the family of the late Idaho potato baron J.R. "Jack" Simplot) shortly after its charted plane landed. “I did a little research. I didn’t realize how far west we were going.”
Francis’ smiling response once he got a turn to talk: “I pulled up a map to make sure I knew where Lexington is. Don’t feel bad.”
Seriously though — and it was largely a serious discussion — the coolness panelists made clear that they all are purposeful Boise residents. Francis grew up here, moved to Seattle for college and career, and came back. So did panel moderator Mike Ballantyne, managing partner at Thornton Oliver Keller Commercial Real Estate, whose family moved to Idaho in 1861.
Stoll, who has been in Boise for nearly a decade, said she loves her new hometown for its “quality of life and accessibility to pretty much anything.” She told the group about her Sunday excursions: In about eight hours, she and her boyfriend went to a museum, a Vietnamese market, a hike and a movie. They traveled via car and bike and on foot. She posted the day’s highlights on Instagram. Her Los Angeles friends were incredulous.
The panelists lauded the arts and sports and Boise State University. The gushed over the Greenbelt and Bogus Basin, skiing and rafting and “Boise nice.” Ballantyne waxed poetic about the weather and the airport, “easy to get in and out of, clean and beautiful.”
And then he asked the panelists the $64,000 question: “What can we do as a community to avoid being a victim of our success?”
Francis said what’s on many a Boisean’s mind: build a better transit system. Stoll agreed and added “economic diversity and affordable housing for those who can’t afford it and also for artists.”
Ballantyne rued Idaho’s track record in funding education: “We’re 48th in the nation in terms of education spending. … We have no pre-K.” – and talked about growth and its difficult challenges.
“We are at a crossroads,” he said. “Dirt is cheap here. I can sell you ground for $500 an acre. … We have to decide as a community: Are we going to go vertical, or are we going to be like Phoenix and sprawl for miles?”
When it came time for questions, Stephanie Spires was blunt. She’s a school board member in a region famous for its open space, its bluegrass, its horse farms. They’re protected by law. As the Lexington area's population grows, things like schools get squeezed.
“How,” she asked, “do you balance growth and maintain your green spaces?”
Both cities are looking for answers to that one.