On Dec. 31, the Idaho New Year’s Eve Commission will drop a giant, glowing potato in celebration of the new year.
I’m a fan of potatoes in all shapes and sizes, but I can’t help thinking: Don’t we want people to know there’s more to Idaho than just potatoes?
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the world views Idaho, and the topic has come up in conversation with friends, acquaintances, co-workers and sources.
In my experience, people don’t view Idaho in any particular way, because most people don’t seem to think about Idaho at all.
As a child living outside Washington, D.C., I knew I would eventually move to Idaho so my dad could take over his father’s medical practice, and my teachers would always ask me if we were going to live near Cleveland. When we first moved, a friend came to visit over the summer, and in her thank-you note to my family she expressed her awe at the fact that we had television and shopping malls. At my first newspaper job, in California, I had to give an in-depth explanation of how Idaho is not in the Midwest, contrary to popular belief.
Urban Dictionary defines Idaho as “One of the best conducted hoaxes in history. Idaho does not exist, nor does anyone ‘from Idaho’ exist.”
Even a recent Boston Globe headline for a story about Whole Foods in Boise places Idaho in America’s heartland, which, according to a quick Google image search, clearly extends no farther west than the Dakotas.
I read a fantasy novel once in which the main character was from a kingdom enchanted by a magical spell that made everyone in the outside world forget that it existed. I often think Idaho must be under that same spell.
So it was nice to hear Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya’s enthusiasm for the state and his pledge to help publicize it at the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce’s CEO Speaker Series Dec. 17.
“Before I got here, I didn’t even know where on the map this state was,” Ulukaya told members of the Boise business community. But now, “I cannot stop myself talking about it.”
That’s great news for economic development groups hoping to bring more businesses to the state. But if Idahoans want to project an image of our state beyond potatoes and rednecks, we’ve got to start a grassroots campaign to show the world what living in Idaho is really about.
Now, I know there’s a contingent of folks who’d prefer to keep outsiders in the dark about what makes Idaho a great place to live, and I understand that. After all, part of what makes the state a safe and relatively unspoiled place to live is the fact that there aren’t a ton of people here.
But on the other hand, the places where there are very few people are some of the places where growth is most needed.
For example, Idaho has the second-smallest number nationwide of physicians per 100,000 people, behind Mississippi, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Idaho also has the fourth-smallest number of primary care physicians per 100,000 people. Nearly every county in Idaho is a Health Professional Shortage Area for primary care, according to the Idaho Department of Labor, and the entire state is an HPSA for mental health care.
Clearly, we need to attract more physicians to the state, especially in its rural areas. Some infrastructure improvements would probably help us do that, but there are also great things about Idaho’s rural areas – besides potatoes – that we can use to market ourselves.
Idaho is an ideal place for people who love to be outdoors. It has one of the largest wilderness areas in the United States: the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. There are myriad opportunities for hiking, biking, climbing, fishing, whitewater rafting, hunting, dirt biking, snowmobiling and skiing, and if you live in a rural area, those opportunities are right on your doorstep.
The entire state is a haven for country folk: people who like to garden, keep livestock and have a little more room between houses. With Idaho’s agricultural background, some of us are even lucky enough to be able to do those things within Boise city limits.
And Boise may not be a big city by national standards, but it’s got big-city amenities such as museums, performing arts groups, great restaurants and downtown living. At the same time, it’s got a river running through town that’s still clean enough to swim and fish in.
Idaho’s truly a place that’s got a little bit of something for everyone. It’s a place that has room to grow, as long as we appreciate what makes it an amazing place to live, potatoes and all.
When that big spud drops, that’ll be my New Year’s wish.
Cady McGovern is Focus editor for Idaho Business Review and has lived in eastern, northern and southwestern Idaho.