by Josh Gross
On Wednesday, March 24, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter gave a speech to the members of the Boise Young Professionals in the basement of the Idaho State Capitol. The topic was why they should stay in Idaho rather than seeking jobs out of state.
Otter's response to the question posed—as well as his responses to the follow-up questions posed by BYP members—circumvented issues of education funding and tech development with discussions of ranching techniques and high school football stories, and were later described to BW as less than satisfactory by BYP members. One called it flat out embarrassing.
BYP member Brooke Hetmer told BW she actually cried after hearing the governor's speech, feeling that she had potentially made a huge mistake by moving back to Boise after a 10-year stint in the military.*
But members of BYP weren't the only ones disappointed by Otter's comments. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter was as well. So much so, that he decided to devote his speech to BYP at the Basque Center on Thursday to answering the same question why they, as young professionals, should stay here.
"Boise is the best possible place to pursue your dreams," he said. "You're young enough and this state is small enough that can eventually have the run of it. Idaho is still a place where you can build the future you want to see.
"I'm just an intermediate to help you along on your way," he added, explaining that there may be more jobs in neighboring states, but transplants would have to work within the existing structures without room to craft their own, thereby limiting their potential accomplishments.
"Truthfully, Boise is a bigger challenge," Bieter admitted. "It's tough. But you all know that anything valuable takes work."
"There's a pony in this city, and it's our job to dig it out," he said, referencing a joke he'd told at the outset of the speech about a child that chooses to play in a room full of manure rather than a room full of toys on the belief that there is a pony buried within.
Bieter also took issue with the governor's comment that Idaho's universities couldn't compete with other regional schools. Bieter gave a list of research grants and Fulbright scholarships that Boise State and the College of Idaho students have received and discussed his own positive educational experience in Idaho.
Bieter then opened the floor to questions from the 75 or so members of the audience.
BYP members asked about the city's priorities for recreational development to attract businesses, why the focus was on tech rather than cultural industries and what Bieter learned from his efforts to build a streetcar in downtown.
The top priority Bieter listed was the whitewater park, followed by upgrades and repairs to city parks and possibly a new downtown library. He said a committee will be formed over the next several months to set priorities and assess feasibility. He also pointed out that these were projects that could benefit immensely from a local option tax, something he's sought for some time.
When asked if there was a plan to pursue a local option tax in the Legislature, Bieter said there was, adding that there is also a recently formed group working on a backup plan to take the issue directly to the citizens if the Legislature doesn't act.
The local option tax was a consistent theme. Bieter discussed other cities similar to Boise in size (Austin, Texas, Salt Lake City, Rochester, N.Y.) which had been able to more effectively recover from the recession because of their ability to tax locally and put that money into education and infrastructure.
"We're one of only three states without a local option or state funding for public transit," Bieter said. "That's not good company to keep."
The most relevant issue for the proposed local option tax is Bieter's desire to build a rail-based public transportation system.
"Just a half-cent tax would generate $28 million annually, and that would create a fantastic public transit system," Bieter said.
Bieter expressed frustration with Saint Luke Regional Medical Center's opposition to last year's proposed streetcar. But problems arose because federal grant funding required that once a plan was on paper, it had to stay static. The new plan being developed is more flexible so it can respond to opposition. He hopes to see a loop from Boise State to 12th Street as a starting point, and eventually a rail-line extending all the way to the airport.
"Even the most conservative estimates of a streetcar line, show an extra 50 percent growth rate along potential streetcar routes," he said.
Bieter said that the city had put aside more than $105,000 for arts funding and was researching ways to incentivize culturally based businesses. But this was another issue where the lack of a local option tax limited the available tools immensely.
Bieter also discussed a recent article in The Economist, "In Praise of Boise," as well as if there was any way to us it to attract new business.
In one final point, Bieter announced that he wants the BYP to serve in an official advisory capacity on issues of local business development, and asked that the group arrange a meeting to get something on paper—a move BW will follow as it develops.
So what did BYP members think of Bieter's presentation?
Rustin Hood, an independent contractor said it instilled hope in him for the future.
"I especially liked his focus on aiding start-ups rather than trying to import companies," he said.
Hood had been brought to the event by his friend, Andrew Mentzer, who also like what the mayor had to say.
"It was refreshing to hear someone speaking frankly rather than just being all rosey about everything," Mentzer said. "I especially liked his analogy about looking for the pony."
Mentzer, 27, will open a youth hostel in the Idaho Building next month. "We needed one," he said. Mentzer had asked the question about support of cultural industries and seemed satisfied with Bieter's answer.
Brooke Hetmer, who had cried after Otter's speech, said she liked that Bieter has actually answered every question put to him, though she was disappointed not to hear anything about the closure of Franklin School.
But it may be an overheard after-event comment that best exemplifies the audience reaction to Bieter's speech.
As Bieter sat down for a beer with some BYP members after the presentation, one of them asked him when he would be running for governor.
"I've got to clear it with my wife," Bieter laughed. "I'll run for mayor again, and then we'll see."
*CLARIFICATION: As referenced in this story's comments, Brook Hetmer believes her comments regarding her move back to Boise were mischaracterized.