Visiting Kentucky leaders ask about race, diversity, and Boise's lack thereof

Mayor Dave Bieter: "A rare breed" and Kentucky bourbon

Visiting leadership from Lexington, Kentucky, warms Mayor Dave Bieter's heart with a gift of his favorite adult beverage.
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Visiting leadership from Lexington, Kentucky, warms Mayor Dave Bieter's heart with a gift of his favorite adult beverage.

The Kentuckians came to Boise to talk about change, about how the City of Trees became a national media darling, how its Downtown has been transformed, how technology companies have been drawn by the low cost of living and friendly business community.

But on Wednesday, the 180-member delegation from Lexington wanted to know about something in Boise that has not changed all that much. The population has boomed, but the city's racial makeup is still overwhelmingly white.

“Is diversity and inclusion an issue?” asked one visitor from Kentucky, in a written query repeated in some form several times Wednesday. “This is one of the least diverse communities we have visited. Thoughts?”

The Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce, aka Commerce Lexington, has visited 34 cities over the last 45 years in search of civic inspiration. Delegations have been to Minneapolis and Madison, Portland and Scottsdale, Ann Arbor and Omaha.

This week brought the chamber's first foray to Boise. Inquiring minds wanted to know why the capital of the Gem State is still so white and whether such homogeneity is a problem. According to the Census Bureau, in 2016, Boise’s population was 82.7 percent white, 8.5 percent Hispanic and 1.8 percent black. In 2010, Boise was 89 percent white.

Ray Stark, senior vice president of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, harked back to “a time when we had the white supremacist movement in North Idaho, 400 miles away, that was tarnishing the entire state, for example.”

Because of that, he said, “our companies couldn’t even get people to get on a plane to come to Boise to interview."

Even now, he said, "when they come, they see a lack of diversity, and it’s an effect on their decision making.”

Stark told the story of a 25-year-old African American man who worked for a major company in Boise a few years ago. But not for long.

“There was no dating pool for a young single African American to speak of,” Stark said. “He moved to Phoenix. The African American side is definitely an issue that you’ve noticed. The Hispanic population is more visible in the neighboring county.”

That would be Canyon County, where Hispanics make up 25 percent of the population and whites 70.8 percent.

Faisal Shah, a Boise serial tech entrepreneur, blamed a brain drain that has sucked away many promising black and Hispanic college graduates. He said Boise needs to do more to encourage diversity and inclusion. Sure, Hispanics live and work in the Treasure Valley, he said, “but they need to be in positions of power.”

“I pitch to other companies to come here, and I think diversity is always a big hurdle you’re trying to get around,” said Shah, who co-founded MarkMonitor and First to File, brand- and patent-protection software companies that he later sold. “We’re more homogenous than we should be. … One of the biggest issues we have is saying, ‘Come to our company,’ but [recruits] look around and see no one who looks like them.”

Even before the question of diversity was broadcast on a big screen in the Grove Hotel ballroom where Commerce Lexington was meeting, one of its members broached an even touchier topic: “We have heard of the vocal pockets of multiple nationalist or white supremacy groups. Do they actively fight new companies and diverse growth? Is that something from years ago?”

State Sen. MaryAnne Jordan, D-Boise, fielded that one.

“That’s something from today,” Jordan said.

Jordan cited a movement called the American Redoubt, which describes itself on as “the final refuge of the American Patriot.” The survivalist group does not advocate white supremacy, though its mostly white members seek refuge from urban social unrest. They have migrated to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

“That’s a tough thing for Idaho," Jordan said. "… There are groups in Idaho, some of them encouraged by sitting legislators, to be quite frank. It’s an issue. It is definitely a perception throughout the country. It’s something that we as leaders do have to address and fight and explain and deal with.”

The highs and lows of growth

Before the Lexingtonians broke for lunch, Mayor Dave Bieter talked about what he believes makes his hometown special. Voters approved two property tax levies used to protect land in the Foothills. The city built 26 miles of Greenbelt, where cyclists, hikers and dog walkers can amble along the Boise River.

As he has before, Bieter lambasted the Ada County Highway District, which controls all of the county's roads, as a hurdle to good land-use decisions. (It appeared that no one from ACHD was on hand to respond.)

He described transportation as the city’s biggest challenge. “If anybody ever thinks it’s a good idea to take control of your roads away from cities and counties and put it in a single-function, separately elected district,” he said, “have them call me, please.”

He acknowledged that “growth is our toughest issue right now” and lauded City Council members who vote to allow appropriate development to go forward in the face of dissent.

“It’s what’s led to a growth pattern that’s changed dramatically from a lot of Western cities,” Bieter said. A pattern “that’s more compact, that’s more a mix of uses, that’s more walkable. Ultimately, we’ve stated our goals to be the most livable city in the country. And that is such a huge element, to have that kind of growth pattern.”

Bieter also unveiled selected results from a survey of citizens that is scheduled for release in coming weeks. Fifteen thousand households were contacted. Nearly 600 residents responded.

Mayor Dave Bieter shares a few statistics from a biennial citizen survey.

Of those, 44 percent said that Boise’s growth is “somewhat” positive, and 18 percent called it “completely” positive. Asked whether the city is headed in the right direction, 54 respondents said they “somewhat” agree, and 14 percent said they “strongly” agree.

The results, Bieter said, are “not going to make everybody happy, especially those that find growth to be just so scary to them. But we know on the whole that people are quite pleased and looking to the future.”

Maria L. La Ganga: 208-377-6431, @marialaganga