Canyon County

Nampa wants you to open up a business downtown. Just not a bar.

Downtown Nampa gets a wave of renovation to historic buildings

Businesses like PreFunk Beer Bar and Messenger Pizza have been catalysts for new development along First Street. But renovations to downtown Nampa's historic buildings remain costly, making it difficult to attract investment to the area.
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Businesses like PreFunk Beer Bar and Messenger Pizza have been catalysts for new development along First Street. But renovations to downtown Nampa's historic buildings remain costly, making it difficult to attract investment to the area.

When Alvin Mullins opens a new bar in downtown Nampa, he plans to make it so focused around families that he’s putting them in the name: the 2C Family Brewery.

But city leaders are finding it hard to look past the fact that the new downtown businesses like his all seem to have one thing in common: They serve alcohol.

Nampa’s downtown growth has been driven primarily by young entrepreneurs who are swiftly swapping out the city’s dusty antique vendors for mural-covered pizza joints and bars twinkling under Christmas lights.

But as business owners invest in Nampa’s future, some conservative city leaders worry that downtown’s growth could be pushing out the demographic that Nampa sees as most central to its identity: families.

“There’s a changing of the guard, and that makes the old guard kind of nervous,” Mullins said in a phone interview. He invested $1.5 million to buy and renovate the two-story Dewey Scales building at 1215 First St. South, where he is opening his own brewery. He is leasing out part of the space to a Mesa Tacos + Tequila, which opened in January.

New businesses like those have created a buzz about downtown that hasn’t been heard in years. But they’re also eliciting concerned murmurs from longtime residents, and in City Hall, about downtown’s changing culture.

In April, after the council approved a liquor license for V Cut Lounge, a new cigar lounge at 217 14th St. South, Councilman Bruce Skaug said he would like the council to consider an ordinance to limit the number of liquor licenses downtown.

Nearly 150 businesses, including restaurants and big-box retailers alike, are allowed to sell alcohol in Nampa. In downtown, of the 19 businesses authorized to sell alcohol, eight sell liquor by the drink and four are restaurants with a full bar.

“I have great memories of raising my six children and taking them to downtown Nampa,” he said at the council meeting. “We’re becoming more and more of a 21-and-over — and not a family setting — downtown.”

Council members Victor Rodriguez and Sandi Levi voiced support for the idea.

“We really have to be more judicious in what we approve moving forward and what we’re going to present our community as in the future,” Levi said at the meeting. “Are families really welcome? And are we matching up to our vision statement?”

Though Skaug first brought up the idea during a December meeting, the Nampa City Council does not yet have plans to put the ordinance on the agenda, said Mayor Debbie Kling’s spokeswoman, Amy Bowman.

After receiving negative feedback from downtown business owners, Skaug has said that he is no longer interested in bringing forward the proposal as an agenda item.

His proposal has raised a question for city leaders, though: Try as they might, what power do they have to shape the city’s culture as it evolves?

A family-friendly downtown

In focus groups led by Kling, residents have said they would like to see a downtown that welcomes all ages.

“My hope for our downtown is to create a family friendly environment where our youth and families can congregate,” Kling said in a statement in response to questions from the Statesman. “Our young people are asking for a vibrant downtown that they can enjoy.”

In between the focus groups, bricks have been laid and front doors opened — and business owners feel proud of the downtown they have shaped.

“The decision maker down here hasn’t been the government in Nampa,” Mullins said. “It’s been the businesses owners putting their hearts and hard work into downtown Nampa to make this a special place.”

Kling applauds that work. The new businesses haven’t all been bars, brewpubs and eateries with liquor licenses. An escape room opened above Mullins’ brewery in 2018. A few doors down, a women’s clothing boutique, Antlers, opened in May.

“We do have some great new establishments,” Kling said during the April council meeting. “The key is to keep it upscale.”

Mullins suspects that the council’s concern is directed mostly at some of downtown’s longtime dive bars.

For longtime Nampa residents, their only idea of downtown bars are dives: windowless taverns, lit only by the electric glow of pull-tab gambling machines and orange-red embers of cigarette tips.

Mullins thinks city leaders needn’t worry about more dive bars opening downtown — not with the high price tag that comes with rehabilitating Nampa’s historic buildings.

“We’re doing this so that people who live in Nampa and commute to Boise have a place that they can come back to at night,” he said.

More than just nightlife

Hong Kong Restaurant, 117 12th Ave. S., has held a liquor license for at least 15 years. Its owner, Jeremiah Smith, considers his restaurant family-friendly, even though it serves alcohol.

Hong Kong Restaurant draws 15% of its sales from alcohol, whose profit margin is higher than food’s. Limiting liquor licenses downtown could make it harder to open businesses like his, he said.

Already, liquor licenses are notoriously difficult to come by in Idaho. Cities are each allowed two liquor licenses, plus an additional license for every 1,500 residents. Sometimes, people apply for liquor licenses only to sell them for thousands of dollars second-hand.

Nampa’s population allows for 63 liquor licenses, 49 of which are currently in use, said Idaho State Police spokesman Tim Marsano. Of that, about seven are used by businesses downtown.

Nampa is somewhat of an anomaly that there are more liquor licenses available than are being used,” he said.

City Councilman Rick Hogaboam sympathizes with some of the new business owners and doesn’t want to see the city impede their momentum.

“We’re becoming a dining district,” he said in an interview. “What people are investing in and creating has generally been value added.”

Hogaboam has heard from business leaders who say city leaders’ attitudes toward establishments that serve on alcohol have made entrepreneurs feel unwelcome downtown. Rather than making liquor out to be an “existential threat” to the city’s values, he wants Nampa to support the kind of establishments that are thriving there — and focus on making areas like Library Square or the train depot more attractive to families.

Mullins says he is grateful for support from the City Clerk’s office and for Kling’s focus on downtown. He hopes the rest of the Council will come to value the investments that he and others have made.

“It’s almost like we’re doing this in spite of the city, instead of with the city,” he said.

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Kate reports on West Ada and Canyon County for the Idaho Statesman. She previously wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Providence Business News. She has been published in The Atlantic and BuzzFeed News. Kate graduated from Brown University with a degree in urban studies.