In every place I have ever lived, there have been locals who took a dim view of newcomers. In areas with a high quality of life, residents value the low population density that means less traffic, shorter lines, and less congestion overall. Who can blame them? Life is simpler when you’re not battling crowds.
This is a big dilemma for Boise, and it’s going to get bigger as the population grows. Over the next 30 years, the Treasure Valley is expected to swell by 400,000 to 1 million people, according to the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho.
Signs of this growth are already manifest, from a wave of new business openings to parking problems in downtown Boise. Lines are starting to slow us down in restaurants and stores, as they have for years in larger cities.
Yet growth is exactly what many leaders and policymakers are working hard to promote. They know that with it comes innovation, energy, investment, and a higher level of business activity overall. On Oct. 27, Zions Bank invited author and urban studies expert Joel Kotkin, a fellow at Chapman University in California, to talk about Boise’s future, population-wise and otherwise, at a luncheon. Kotkin has spent some time learning about Boise, and he provided valuable analysis of why Boise and the Treasure Valley are growing, and what we can expect to see in coming years.
First, Kotkin said, the coastal areas are becoming too expensive and too heavily regulated for many, and that’s prompting some to flee to smaller inland cities like Boise. I certainly meet business owners in the course of my job who say the No. 1 reason they left California was the rules were too onerous.
Another reason for moving to Idaho: Idaho and Utah have seen a reasonably good growth in middle-class jobs, much higher than the national average. Boise, like many cities, is facing a shortage of skilled labor, which makes it an attractive target for people who don’t mind the fact that those jobs also tend to pay less than those in larger metro areas.
Some of those jobs are in manufacturing. Kotkin said that Idaho has seen some of the most rapid manufacturing expansion in the country, in contrast to California, where manufacturing is stagnant or negative.
“Manufacturing (in Idaho) is increasing its productivity much faster than the rest of the economy,” he said.
Affordable housing is also a huge draw, as it has been in Idaho for decades. Kotkin said housing prices in Idaho compare much more reasonably to average wages than they do in some cities in California. For example, while the average paycheck in the Silicon Valley area is $115,000 a year, a home that would be $300,000 in Boise is valued in the millions there. Only about 12 percent of the people who live in the Bay Area, he said, can afford to buy a house.
Kotkin’s advice to Idaho’s leaders: Take advantage of this moment by appealing to groups who are likely to find Boise attractive, and who will enhance the area when they show up.
One such group, he said, is immigrants. About 30 percent of new households are foreign-born, Kotkin said, and they’re smart enough to head for a place where they can stretch their dollars to buy a house.
“If your economy is growing you’re going to have to appeal to immigrants; there’s no other way to do it,” he said. “As a group they tend to be energetic, family-oriented and entrepreneurial, much more than native-born Americans.”
(Full disclosure: I’m an immigrant. But he said this, not me.)
Along with immigrants, Kotkin recommended going after the group he called the “young old,” the 65-and-older group who want to ride bikes around town and are likely to be involved in some kind of business venture. Census data shows these people tend to leave the core cities for laid-back, uncrowded, and affordable havens near nature, like Boise.
“People are reinventing themselves in their 60s,” he said. “Look at the demographic: There’s this huge surge of “young old” and that’s going to be an enormous factor in the rest of the country, and Boise is well-positioned for that.”
So how do leaders appeal to these ideal newcomers, the foreigners and the “young old?” Kotkin didn’t have a lot of answers for that one, but he did say the parks greatly increase a city’s appeal and property values. Boise pretty much has that one down. Good wireless connectivity makes a difference too, he said, because it helps the group he called “down-shifting boomers” to stay engaged in their work. Wisely creating public transport to steer us away from the bumper-to-bumper congestion in coastal cities will also help.
And it might be a good idea to readjust that “now go home” position. Boise’s a great place to live; people recognize that and are moving here in droves. We can’t slam the door on them, and really, do we want to? Let’s put our energy into making change work for everyone.
Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.