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CEO of Brighton, a major Idaho developer, says Boise is like Salt Lake 25 years ago

Photo tour of Brighton Corp. developments

Brighton Corp. has built thousands of homes and apartments, and dozens of major retail and commercial developments, in the past 25 years. Take a walk through just a few of them.
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Brighton Corp. has built thousands of homes and apartments, and dozens of major retail and commercial developments, in the past 25 years. Take a walk through just a few of them.

David Turnbull built his own house in Eagle.

Of course he did. After all, he’s owner and CEO of one of the largest development companies in Idaho.

“I’ve always got a remodel project,” he says. “That’s the hazard of being in the business. You’re never quite satisfied.”

Turnbull, 58, has built thousands of homes for other people in the Treasure Valley over the past 25 years. As a developer, he’s never quite satisfied, either — always looking for ways to remodel the landscape around him.

“It’d be easy enough to say, ‘I’ve done enough, I’ll go do something else,’ ” he says. “But I don’t know, every day, it’s just coming in and taking raw material, raw resources, and figuring out what you can do with that to create something different, something special. You have to balance that with what’s financially feasible and what the marketplace will accept. So there’s always that tension and that tug-of-war of how to solve that equation.”

Turnbull grew up in Idaho Falls and studied finance at Brigham Young University. He moved to Boise — his wife’s hometown — in his early 30s, after selling a Western construction-industry business he co-owned with his father and brother.

“I was actually looking at going back East and getting an MBA, and my father-in-law, who was a developer in this area, had just started Boise Research Center ... and gave me a call one day,” he says. “It really never occurred to me to get into the real estate development business. But he said, ‘Hey, I’m starting this new project.’ He didn’t have a commercial development background; he was in residential development. And he said, ‘Would you be interested in coming up and taking a look at this, and see if you’re interested?’ So we did. It kind of detoured us from our going-back-East plans, and we’ve been here for 27 years.”

0517 bi turnbull 02 - seated smiling, same cutline as 03A
David Turnbull, the CEO of Brighton Corp., helped to build the West Family YMCA among many other well-known projects. “We’re probably the largest diversified developer — residential and commercial,” he says. “I don’t think anybody’s done as much variety — office, industrial, retail, residential, multifamily — as we have.” Katherine Jones

Turnbull’s first big project in Boise, in his mid-30s, was the Boise Research Center and Hobble Creek community, which included the West Family YMCA at 5959 N. Discovery Way. His company, Brighton Corp., has done about 30 developments — commercial, residential and mixed-use — and numerous sub-projects in the past 25 years. The company now has about 50 employees at its offices in the Boise Research Center, 12601 W. Explorer Drive, Boise. He declined to disclose annual revenues.

Q: What are a few of your favorite projects over the years?

A: I think Boise Research Center and Hobble Creek probably had the biggest initial impact, because nobody had ever done anything of that size or scope before.

We had 160 acres for the Boise Research Center, and Boise Research Center is still the largest business park in the state. We started with that, and then the opportunity came up to buy all the way out to Eagle Road. My partner at the time really questioned doing that, but I was able to convince him that we really needed to do that. And he said, ‘Well, you only get one of those in a career.’ So, 320 acres back then was pretty big.

That was the catalyst for when the YMCA came to us, when they were looking for a second location. They just had the Downtown location. And the Y’s a big part of the community, obviously, and we’ve always been big supporters of them.

That morphed. I think originally they wanted six acres, something like that. We started a collaborative effort and enlisted stakeholders like HP, the school district, the city.

The city decided to get involved in funding [the aquatic center], and they said, ‘Well, if we’re going to have that, we’d like to have a park,’ like a community park. Well, that’s a 20-acre park. Then I think it was Mark Falconer at HP, he said, “Well, if we’re going to have a Y and an aquatic center and a park, we ought to have an elementary school.”

So we revised the whole master plan of Boise Research Center around that [project] and did subsequent planning of residential around that.

I think that has been used as an example. I’m often asked by the YMCA to come meet with visitors from out of state who want to see what we’ve done and how that came about.

Q: What did you learn from that project?

A: I just learned the value of collaboration with different stakeholders. I learned that it can be fun, too. It’s really part of what drives me, is to be able to have the capability and the capacity to do projects like this. It’s sort of what drives me, even today.

That’s why we were so heavily involved in South Meridian YMCA. You have to have some satisfaction with what you’re doing, and some fun along the way.

Q: Why is the Y important to you?

A: We like the Y because it’s a place where people of all socioeconomic backgrounds can assemble. You can have the poorest teenager participating next to a CEO of a company. It’s a good melting pot. And we also like them because they take care of those disadvantaged children. They do a lot of charitable work. That’s why we’ve always been a pretty big contributor to the YMCA. And the Boys and Girls Club. We have a real soft spot for disadvantaged children.

Q: Why is that?

A: I grew up with all the advantages. I don’t come from a wealthy family, but I never went without. And I had good examples in my life. I was surrounded by sharp people that knew where they were going and were able to mentor me. A lot of kids, you see the situation where they live in, and it’s like, you wonder if they can even see outside of where they are. You want to be able to put them in an environment where they can see what their possibilities are — that they’re not stuck in a situation. Anything we can do to help those disadvantaged children see a brighter future.

Q: What about residential projects? Which are your favorites?

A: Hobble Creek was interesting because we did 383 homes, which was a very big project back in that time. And we did 288 apartments. That caused a little bit of controversy, because there are certain people who think everything’s got to be segregated. Like, you can’t mix multifamily with single family. That’s a paradigm that elected officials and planners, everybody, has evolved on over 30 years. It used to be just really segmented zoning.

Apartment construction
David Turnbull’s Brighton Corp. built the Boise Research Center and the adjacent Hobble Creek subdivision in the 1990s west of Hewlett-Packard’s campus in Northeast Boise. A worker builds stairs in 1998 for the Renaissance Apartments at Hobble Creek. Idaho Statesman file

Hobble Creek was an example where we actually planned a multifamily project right within this whole master-planned community. We had businesses next to the YMCA and the aquatic center and the school, and then the single family and some retail. So that was probably one of the most pioneering projects in that respect. I’m not saying it was the greatest example of all time, but it was one that changed the conversation.

Then, what we did in Paramount, that’s almost all of a square mile — 540 acres. And that’s a pretty nice blank canvas to start to work with.

When we start a project, one of the first stops I make is to the school district to say, ‘What are your needs? Do you have any plans for this area? How can we help?’

With Paramount, we started off with an elementary school right in the heart of the project, so that at build-out, it should be pretty much a walk-in school.

The schools were busting at the seams, and they wanted a new high school. That gets a little trickier, because high schools come with a lot of teenage drivers. How do you plan that into a community? You don’t want your streets to be overrun by rush-hour traffic at 8 o’clock in the morning and 3 o’clock when they let out.

But we worked with the school district, and we provided them with an elementary school site. All the roads, all the improvements around it were done. We provided that as a bigger donation. The high school site was a bigger parcel so we ... subsidized the land purchase cost.

We have all sorts of residential options in Paramount, from multifamily apartments that are just under construction now, to some multifamily townhomes, to some alley-access — we call them carriage lane — homes that are for a more low-maintenance lifestyle.

We’re about to kick off the last phase of Paramount. The last vacant acreage that we have. That’s going to be what we think will be the premier active adult community in the Valley. We’ll be unveiling the plans on that the next couple weeks.

That’s it. We’re done with that, we’re done with Paramount. I think it will be approximately 1,800 residential dwelling units of one sort or another. And commercial, schools, you name it. That one probably had the biggest impact. It’s been the best-selling community in Idaho.

Q: Where do you think we are now, in the timeline of growth in the Treasure Valley?

A: I think Southwest Airlines coming to town was a [game changer]. Boise’s in a unique location. Between Portland, Seattle and Salt Lake. It’s sort of a go-between spot. Some people might describe it as a flyover spot.

We used to get in-migration from neighboring states, but a lot from California. And California’s still a factor, because people want to get out of there. They’re looking for a place to go, and Boise really ends up being one of the top three or four places on their list. But we’re also seeing people coming from all over the country now.

It reminds me of where Salt Lake was maybe 25 years ago, where you hit this inflection point where you hit a critical mass. When you start getting your airline transportation, and transportation facilities, and your technology. All of those things combined with enough population, frankly, you’re on the map.

People ask me if we’re getting to another bubble, and who knows what might happen. North Korea could send a missile our way. It’s very busy out there, but it’s not like it was in 2005, 2006, 2007. That was a crazy, crazy time. You just knew something was gonna go wrong back then. I didn’t have any idea it could get as bad as it did, but you knew that couldn’t continue. I don’t think we’re in that kind of situation again. I think it’s probably good — better, healthier growth this time.

Q: What was the Great Recession like for Brighton? How’d you make it through?

A: We saw the downturn hit in June of 2006. We tracked our numbers pretty well, and we saw traffic into our model homes drop by 50 percent between 2005 and 2006. I think there had just been such a frenzy that it was unsustainable. That all ran out of steam. And a lot of people didn’t realize it in Boise until about 2007.

We’re pretty low-leverage [as a company]. The people that got hurt were the ones who were out there borrowing money and over-leveraging. We were always a fairly low-leverage company with respect to the real estate industry, far lower than many of our peers.

A lot of good people got creamed. Now, [local development is] in a pretty good place.

Q: What are you looking forward to right now?

A: Really what motivates me is our team and the people we work with, and the thought of coming into the office every day. A lot of it is just because of what we’re able to do. It is really enjoyable to take these raw materials and combine them with the expertise of your team and see what you can make out of that. So, the creativity part of it.

And I’m a little bit of a deal junkie. I guess a lot of the acquisitions I do because people come to me and say, ‘Do you want to do something?’ And I turn down 10 for every one I accept. But the ones we accept are fun.

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @audreydutton. This story appears in the May 17-June 20, 2017, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine as part of a special section on people who have shaped the Treasure Valley. Click here for the Statesman’s e-edition, which includes Business Insider (subscription required).