BSU art student draws graphics to visualize residents’ opinion on Boise’s growth
Memo to: Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.
Re: Your first community workshop on growth.
After welcoming participants to the workshop Wednesday night, you left the auditorium at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center. You’d been warned, you said, that your presence might keep people from speaking freely.
Chances are, you needn’t have worried.
Because once the 57 women and men — who had left dinner tables and TV sets and kids’ homework to take part — started talking about their hopes and fears for the city they love, they did not stop for the better part of two hours.
Some of what they said will make you exceedingly happy. Just like you, they wondered why the heck the Ada County Highway District is in charge of the roads that traverse the city. Just like you, they blasted the Idaho Legislature for not allowing municipalities to tax themselves to pay for things like transit systems. Just like you, they really, really want that transit system.
“Idaho is one of only two states that doesn’t have a public funding option for transportation,” said one participant. “We have no option to levy a local option tax. Just the option to have that would be a really nice thing.”
You couldn’t have said it better yourself.
Other themes that arose from the moderated public conversation, though, should give you pause.
Many in the group said they did not feel listened to by you and the City Council. They worried that “big developers” had taken over the engine of growth that drives Boise. “Transparency” was high on the collective wish list.
They want to know what you’re doing. They want to feel like they’re part of it. Because right now, they said, they don’t.
As one man put it, “The other thing we talked about was the lack of trust in levels of government, planning and decision making. City Council should be meeting somewhere other than the City Hall every week. Same with county commission, highway district, etc. Take the government out, don’t force people to come downtown.”
These comments weren’t just the personal reflections of a single woman or man motivated enough to show up at the kickoff workshop that you convened in response to the growing concerns about your growing city.
The way the workshop functioned was that participants were broken up into groups of four to six people. Each group had a facilitator who kept the conversation on track and took notes on big pads of butcher paper on tall easels.
During the first part of the evening, the groups made lists of the things that delight them about changing Boise, whether their families had lived here for generations or they had just moved in a year or so ago. The next exercise was to make lists of their biggest concerns about growth. After each segment, one person at the table reported out the group’s collective thoughts.
As you know, this was the first of three such meetings, and you’ll get a full report in early July, according to Jennifer Schneider, a professor in the Boise State University School of Public Service who was picked to run the fact-finding mission. Afterward, you and the City Council will figure out how to respond to all of the heartfelt public input.
But just so you don’t have to wait for three weeks to find out how it all went, here are some highlights.
On the minus side, although hundreds of people signed up to attend the workshops — so many that you added a third one to handle the demand, and there were still waiting lists — attendance Wednesday was a little sparse. Of the 91 people who had signed up, nearly 40 percent were no-shows.
Adam Park, one of your senior staffers, said the city staff will be “more aggressive about our booking” and “we might expand the capacity” so that more people show up on next Tuesday, June 26, and Thursday, June 28, at workshops on the Boise State campus. In addition, you’ve launched an online survey to glean ideas from people who cannot make it to the live events.
Overall, though, “I think it’s a good turnout,” Park said, as the hospital auditorium buzzed with the sound of ideas being shared. “We’re pleased with the mix.”
On the plus side, there was the ebullient Petra Britton, spokeswoman for Table 15, a self-described “newbie” with a slight Southern accent who moved here from Florida a year ago and was the first participant to jump up and share her group’s observations about how growth has helped the city she now calls home.
“First of all, we have a vibrant Downtown community,” she said, a little breathless and talking fast. “It is exciting to go Downtown. It is filled with great restaurants and sports opportunities. Let’s talk about football and hockey and basketball and it’s all right there.
“We have cultural events, and what else?” She paused and squinted at her table’s easel. “Look at this. We have all these great parks, we have the Greenbelt. How many of you really like it here? Would you give me a round of applause and say, ‘Yes!’ to Boise?”
The clapping and the laughter died down. Schneider deadpanned: “I promise, we did not pay her.”
Reports about growth fears were equally passionate. Traffic, not surprisingly, was among the biggest negatives, along with the concern that “Boise nice” is disappearing hard on the heels of affordable housing.
As Table 3 deliberated, one woman lamented what she called Boise’s “hidden population” of people who are one paycheck away from homelessness.
A few tables over, real estate agent Phil Mount talked about millennials on the hunt for the elusive $250,000 starter home.
“They do exist,” he cracked. “There may be 30 or 40 in the Treasure Valley.” The whole Treasure Valley. Not that they’re all actually for sale.
The main concern at Table 8, said group representative Gary Salisbury, also a real estate agent, was that City Hall is Downtown-centric, to the detriment of everyone else in town.
“We who live in true West Boise want the city fathers to know that Downtown isn’t the only part of Boise,” he said. “We don’t want to just be a corridor. We live in Boise, too. That is No. 1.”
Table 12 was blunt and mournful as its spokesman sent a cautionary message to you and the rest of City Hall. It would be a good idea to heed these folks and figure out how to respond to them.
The group rued “the sense that over the past several years the relationship between neighborhoods, neighbors and City Council and city leadership has kind of gone downhill in a way.”
There’s a sense, the group’s representative said, that “diversity of opinion can be a good thing, but if you’re not on board with what the city or the big development folks want to do, you’re kind of shut out in some cases."
His bottom line? “Neighborhoods tend to lose out to development. [There’s a] sense that big developers are really driving the train in a lot of cases.”