In a recent piece in the Blue Review, our insightful Community and Regional Planning Department Chair Jaap Vos presents the understudied concept of time as it relates to the issue of city planning. Vos nicely extends the concept presented by LDS temple designer Bradford Houston, who argued that good cities provide residents with time. Vos finds the argument intriguing especially juxtaposed against the planner’s notion of maximizing efficiency within the city. While that represents a mechanistic notion of city planning, indeed efficiency permeates many of the planner’s tasks. As Vos describes, “. . . we planners think about buildings, streets and economic development. We ignore the fact that the city is not just an economic engine; it is the place where we live, eat, drink, walk, listen to music or just hang around.” Following that analysis, Vos admonishes city planners: “we ignore the city’s rhythm, its people and its notions of time at our own peril.” What Vos conveys here is the message that we should build a city around the inherent rhythms of its culture, people and institutions. I argue that there is a flipside to this notion: be aware that your city’s rhythm has costs.

A newcomer to Boise, Vos demonstrates that he gets it already. “We linger. We hang out. We extend the day downtown in local restaurants, listen to local bands, attend shows and free concerts and festivals,” he writes. Boise is full of “cyclists, unhelmeted and off-lane; cafes full of laptops and meetings; noon-hour and any-hour exercisers.” Put more concisely, Boise is the lackadaisical city. And that is a symptom of a city that has never feared economic privation, one that has almost quite literally lurched from one gold rush to the next. Because Boiseans have never had to face fear, this “out-of-doors, out-of-the-rat-race culture” that Vos describes has taken hold, and taken root. This lack of a sense of urgency among residents of the city extends to business, political and non-profit leaders charged with navigating a path out of economic malaise – one that isn’t simply disguised by the city’s appearance on top ten lists.This post is a response to Jaap Vos’ essay for TBR 3, “Making Time in Boise.”

The Boise Basin has variously existed as a fertile homeland for Native American settlement, military encampment, fur trade route and mining supply post. It has always existed as the chief urban center of Idaho, predating the establishment of the state by nearly three decades. At the turn of the last century the Boise Basin started its modern day boom following the passage of the 1902 Reclamation Act. The irrigated valley supported entrepreneurs like J.R. Simplot who grew wealthy on war contracts and parlayed that fortune into melding food production and science, culminating in the first freeze dried French fry. The 1960s and 70s saw growth of native powerhouses – Simplot, Albertsons, Boise Cascade, Trus Joist, Ore-Ida, and of course Morrison-Knudsen. Around this time too, the Parkinsons developed this business called Micron, and the Valley attracted a huge HP facility. The 1990s and 2000s were boom-boom-boom everywhere you looked. Housing, construction, health care and retail created the appearance of permanent prosperity. Then in 2007 it finally came to a halt for everyone. But again, we didn’t worry, and haven’t worried since. For Boise, the next boom is always just around the corner.

Economic developers here point to the 50 top-ten lists on which the City has appeared since 2008 – pretty impressive since that’s about near the trough of the Great Recession. But a more realistic appraisal of the current condition here renders those lists meaningless. Morrison-Knudsen has twice sold, and San Francisco-based parent URS continues paring down staff in Boise. Ore-Ida has long since sold to Pittsburgh-based Heinz which Warren Buffet recently subsumed. Trus Joist is gone, bought by Weyerhauser. Only Simplot and Albertsons remain, Albertsons a particular bright spot in the pall cast by the loss of local capital and white-collar jobs.

On the more recent front, North Dakota-based Corwin Motors purchased the venerable Dan Wiebold Ford in Nampa. The remnant “Boise, Inc.” – now exists in jeopardy as its sale to Packaging Corp. occurred to shore up the new parent company’s production operations. Bank of America, which ironically began as a provider of banking services to disenfranchised Italian immigrants in the Bay Area, has itself disenfranchised Boise, selling off its retail banking operations to Washington Federal. Key Bank too, recently moved its local management operations to Denver.

On the quantitative side, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that in 2012, the Boise metro area grew just 2.1 percent over the prior year. The nation’s 381 metros averaged growth of 2.5 percent. Idaho’s five other metropolitan areas showed either no growth or worse – their economies are still contracting – leaving some in befuddling amazement.

In the September 23, 2013 edition of the Idaho Statesman, one Idaho official wondered aloud why a preponderance of 2012 Idaho high school graduates left the state for colleges and universities in the Bay Area? Could it be that with 7.4 percent growth in 2012, it’s the fastest growing metro economy in the country? On a business trip to Orange County, California a couple years back, my wife’s colleagues there chartered a helicopter to fly them to a meeting just a few miles away in South Los Angeles County. They couldn’t waste time in traffic. In Seattle, another of the nation’s fastest growing metro areas, residents measure distance in time not miles, the 10-mile distance between Seattle and Bellevue being irrelevant for planning purposes.

For some – apparently first and foremost the Boiseans Dr. Vos so eloquently describes – the rat race that is Seattle, Southern California and the Bay Area – is simply too much to bear. We’re content to “look forward to Bogus Basin opening for skiing, or the river for floating,” as Vos notes. But Boiseans face a real quandary for once in their 150-year history: waiting in line for Bogus to open also means waiting in the lengthening unemployment line.

As we watch our kids leave for jobs and colleges out of state, as we watch white-collar jobs disappear through sale and attrition and as we watch local capital disappear through sale and attrition, we finally must confront the cost of Boise’s pace. This is the Great Reset, and we haven’t yet pushed the button. If we’re going to “make time” in Boise in the future, it better be with some sense of urgency.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.

  • Anthony Harding

    Great article. Well written and well argued points.

    One thing I think is worthy to mention: The story of local companies leaving Boise to larger cities is the same story being sung across the country. Boise is at a particular economic disadvantage because our city is so dramatically isolated. If you’re a business owner here, there is tremendous risk because if the labor you need does not exist here, the nearest large talent pools are 200-300 miles away. In an economic downturn, businesses will move where the people (labor) are, even if it’s more expensive there. While low taxes and incentives can absolutely bring economic growth, it’s worthless if the pool of talent and labor is leaving. It’s why I think the state of Idaho is really hurting itself by not investing more into education.

    But why I have maybe a bit more hope for Boise is that in an economic upswing, quality of life to the business owner becomes considerably more important. In boom-cycles businesses have a natural tendency to become less risk-averse (similar to when you have money, you’re more likely to spend money) and can afford to locate themselves in a more isolated place like Boise and still be competitive in their respective industries. Especially because in an economic boom, I think talent and labor will be less inclined to leave. As technology in the future continues to break down barriers of communication, quality of life will become even more important in attracting business, as our isolation becomes less and less relevant an issue.

    Thanks for writing the article, it was an enlightening read.

  • Paul Thomas

    Lackadaisical? Oh please. One of the big reasons companies moved to Boise in the past is because of our strong work ethic. We work when we work, and we play when we play. If Chris wants to live with a sense of urgency, that’s fine, but he will live longer if he learns to relax.

    • Paul – the only company I cited in my article that was non-native was H-P. I can’t think of a major employer that moved here citing Boise’s work ethic – perhaps you can. But I wasn’t really commenting on that. The gist of my piece is that a preponderance of economic indicators shows Boise going to Hell in a handbasket, and I don’t see any evidence that our business or political leaders are even cognizant of this, let alone working on the issue. Thanks for responding!

      • Paul Thomas

        Regardless of whether or not Boise is going to Hell in a handbasket, I must protest your elitist tone. Boise is no more “full” of cyclists, “unhelmeted and off-lane” than any other bike friendly city, like Seattle or Portland. Every major city has cafes full of laptops and and meetings, and most companies (including the one I work for) understand that employees who exercise and have proper work-life balance are much more productive. You paint with a very broad brush, and a very narrow mind. And you owe the citizens of Boise a collective apology for being such a snob.

        As for your argument about “location”, my chair is in Boise, but my desk is in Pullman, WA. In the growing information economy, this will become even more commonplace, as “FlexPlace” joins “FlexTime” in common business language.

  • I enjoyed this, Chris, but this–“Boise is full of ‘cyclists, unhelmeted and off-lane; cafes full of laptops and meetings; noon-hour and any-hour exercisers'”–struck me as shrinking Boise down to just downtown, the North End, and the edge of the foothills. Out where I live, near the LDS temple, the scene is very different, much more hardscrabble and working class and, yes, hurting. Why do Boiseans, city planners, and those who write about our city on top-ten lists, so often insist on describing Boise only by the area described by lines drawn roughly north and east of the Boise Depot?

    • Leslie – I don’t disagree at all. The downtown is where the tax base is and the electeds and staff in the City are pledged to defend it. That’s the short story on reductionism. And though we have 3 dozen or so neighborhood associations in the City of Boise, I don’t get the sense that the neighborhoods themselves, with a few exceptions, have developed a real identity on their own accord as you see in say Portland or Seattle. PDX is so hyper-local now that it’s not enough to drink Portland-based craft beers – you better be drinking beer from your own neighborhood.

      • Paul Thomas

        Again with the snobbery: “you better be drinking beer from your own neighborhood”. This may come as a shock, but there are people out there who are not driven by fashion or trends. They’re called individuals. And the most wonderful neighborhoods are “full” of them.