• Marc Johnson

No Little Plans


An election that is normally an afterthought for most residents of Idaho’s capitol city takes place Tuesday and, while the five people who run the Greater Boise Auditorium District (GBAD) are not likely to dramatically alter the development arc of Boise anytime soon, the higher than normal visibility attending the race will be a signal of some kind about Boise’s future.

And, the signal, I dare say, is not over a fairly petty issue of how to fund the city’s convention and visitors bureau, which has become a distracting sideshow obscuring the much bigger fish that should be frying in Boise. GBAD runs the state’s premier meeting and convention space and has been struggling for years to determine how to expand.

The stakes for Boise in Tuesday election and beyond, it seems to me, boil down to two very different options: does Boise move boldly ahead with a new wave of public and private investment similar to what took place in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s or does Idaho’s largest city become content to settle in as simply a nice place in the west, but without quite the guts to become a great place?

When I came to Boise a long time ago, the fall of 1975, the city was a sleepy state capitol with a decaying downtown and some modest aspirations. When I think of the changes in the intervening 35 years, beyond the obvious population growth and a general move to the suburbs, I think of what has happened to make the city a better, more attractive place not only to live and work, but a place able to attract significant new growth and investment. Hardly anyone who lives in Boise would say it’s not a nice place. A good parks system, a fantastic river (and mostly underappreciated greenbelt), a mostly attractive and engaging downtown, open space in the foothills for hiking, biking and dogs. For many, the outdoors defines the place and that’s great as far as it goes. But truly great cities are also investment magnets. Bricks and mortar, innovation and aspiration count for a lot in great cities.

I reflect on what wasn’t here when I arrived: the Morrison Center, a world-class concert and performance venue built in 1984; the Boise State Pavilion (I still have trouble with the Taco Bell label) built in 1982, a space that regularly hosts concerts and NCAA basketball; and  the Boise Centre, the state’s largest convention and meeting space built in 1990 and where, because of its popularity and utility, it is increasingly difficult to secure a date for your local, not to mention out-of-town event. Beyond these three essential public facilities, not much in the way of public investment (outside the Boise State campus) has taken place in Boise in 35 years.

In terms of private investment, the last major construction downtown, not counting condo development, was the Banner Bank Building, completed in 2007 just before the economy nosedived, and BoDo, the south of downtown shopping, eating and entertainment center. Of the other, newer downtown buildings, the Wells Fargo Building at 9th and Main is of 1988 vintage, the U.S, Bank Plaza dates to 1978, while the Grove Hotel and Qwest Arena came along in 200o. Currently, when thinking about big privately funded civic projects, only the Simplot family’s JUMP project is actually on the drawing board.

I have this notion, reinforced by a little travel, that great cities are defined by great public buildings and venues. If that is true, with the obvious exception of the marvelously renovated Idaho Capitol Building, Boise is still a bit of a cow town.

[I’ll offer up all my disclaimers here: I chair the city’s library board, am a 16 year season ticket holder to the Boise Hawks, just joined the board of the Downtown Boise Association and have worked in the past for the auditorium district and the city. In short, I have lots of connections to Boise, care about the place and my bias here is pretty obvious – Boise has a chance to be an even better place, if it wants. But, it has to want.]

The city’s main public library is squeezed into a re-purposed plumbing supply warehouse. While the city deserves great praise for adding neighborhood libraries in recent years, there can be little debate that Boise needs a bigger, vital, new main library; a public center of the community that makes a statement about the city, its values, its energy and its aspirations.

The Boise Centre may be among the best operated meeting facilities in the country and regularly meets or exceeds its financial targets, but its not of a size to attract major national meetings, trade shows and conventions.

Prior to 1975, Boise hadn’t had minor league baseball in a long time. For two years the Oakland A’s had a Northwest League team here, followed by the unaffliated Boise Buckskins in 1978. In those days baseball was played at a high school field where fans weren’t able to hoist a beer. Imagine.

Aging and increasingly inadequate Memorial Stadium was built when baseball returned in the late 1980’s and it has neither the amenities nor the seats to be considered anywhere close to the class of the league. Securing a long-term future for minor league baseball in Boise simply requires a better ballpark and it ought to be part of a larger effort to revitalize an entire neighborhood.

Just to be clear, minor league baseball teams are moving all the time. The Yakima Bears, another Northwest League team, said last week they want to move to as yet unbuilt ballpark in Vancouver, Washington. The deal will require money from the club owners, the corporate community and the country. As one baseball backer in Vancouver told the Columbian, “This is just a huge opportunity for this community. This is how communities get on the map. This is how communities grow.” Indeed.

Think about a Boise of 2015 or so with a new main library on par with Salt Lake City or Nashville. A world-class convention venue to attract big events and big money. Expanding the existing Boise Centre or building a new facility is about as close to a “build it and they will come” proposition as exists. And then add a near downtown ballpark – Oklahoma City has one for example, as does Reno – and configure it to host minor league soccer, high school football and – one day – AAA baseball and Boise starts to act like a bigger league city.

Sound fanciful? It wouldn’t be easy and will take some urban courage. The business community will have to think bigger than it normally does and so will local elected officials. The state legislature has decided that Idaho cities can’t be trusted with the usual tools of urban economic development like local option taxation or transit funding, so a carefully drawn strategy will be required.

The Morrison Center required a public-private partnership to become reality. When I first came to town a fight was brewing over where to locate the building, but leadership and aspiration won out and a great site was chosen along the river. Can you imagine the excellent Boise Philharmonic playing these days in the Boise High School auditorium? Boise wouldn’t be Boise without the Morrison Center.

The Boise Centre was years in the making, but imagine Boise without it today. No big charity auctions and no 700 person crowds to hear a big name speakers at an Idaho Humanities Council dinner. No Taco Bell Arena?  You’d eventually get use to driving to Salt Lake to see an NCAA tournament game or to Portland to see an Elton John in concert. The next wave of public and private investment in Boise is long overdue, but will it happen? Big projects require leadership, excitement and momentum. We shall see.

There is a strange dichotomy in Boise and Idaho, as illustrated by some recent polling my firm (Gallatin Public Affairs) undertook with pollster Greg Strimple and the Idaho Business Review. The state is split, and in some ways Boise seems split as well, between folks who are pretty comfortable with life as it has traditionally been in Idaho and those who have greater aspirations. Maybe that first group decided there was just too much growth in the last two decades of the last century and they now feel more comfortable with the notion that nothing much needs to happen in the foreseeable future. These folks, and every town has them, will likely write the letters to the editor insisting Boise isn’t big enough, or wealthy enough or smart enough to pull off a big plan that builds for a bigger future. Many in this group are in what one columnist has called the BANANA Brigade – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

We’ve already seen this group put the kibosh on serious planning for an urban street car system, for example, which to visitors from Salt Lake or Portland simply makes no sense whatsoever. If we started the planning tomorrow for a new interurban light rail system (we had one of those once long ago) linking Caldwell, Nampa, Meridian and Boise, with extensions to the airport, Boise State and the North and East Ends, we might be able to break ground in 15 years. It takes that long, just ask Seattle. Yet, beyond a handful of forward thinking elected officials there is no consensus for such ambition and certainly no community will.  With four buck a gallon gasoline, ask folks in the Portland area if they made a good decision to build their light rail and street car system back in 1978?

The other group in our population, and I count myself in this number, wonder where the good jobs of the future are going to come from without this type of long-term strategic investment? With a knowledge based economy becoming ever more important and with smart young people taking their ideas and their businesses where they want to live, cities like Boise will need to compete anew for their attention or be content to see them take their energy and ambition somewhere else. Lots of other places as diverse as Oklahoma City and Asheville, North Carolina and as different as Tucson and Austin are in the hunt for a piece of the new economy and the workers of the future. Will Boise decide to really compete?

A new main library, a bigger and better convention center and a multi-purpose stadium aren’t the be-all and end-all in the race to compete, but each would signal a level of ambition and aspiration that would help brand Boise as a western city of the future and not just a very nice place with limited aspirations.

A year ago, former three-term Seattle Mayor Charley Royer was the keynoter for the Downtown Boise Association annual meeting held, of course, at the Boise Centre. Royer presided over Seattle from the late 1970’s to the mid-1980’s and left office hailed as one of America’s best mayors. Royer made a quip during his speech a year ago that has stuck with me. He was referring, of course, to his city – Seattle – but it is a remark that may fit Boise just as well.

“In Seattle,” Royer said, “we do process well. We can chew, but we can’t swallow.” Chewing, to invoke Charley’s metaphor, is what Boise has been doing for some time.

The great urban planner and architect Daniel Burnham offered the correct prescription a century ago, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”

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©2021 by Marc C Johnson