by Josh Gross
This morning, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter gave his annual State of the City address to a packed house at the Boise Centre. While major topics included successes of the last year, a discussion of the city's economic-development philosophy and the need for a local option taxing to see the city reach its full potential, the highlight of the morning was the unveiling of a new large-scale solar-power project west of the airport.
The city has entered into negotiations with Sunergy World to construct a large-scale solar energy production facility on the former city dump site west of the airport. The proposed plant would cost $45 million, generate 10 megawatts of electricity (enough to power 1,200 homes every year) and create several dozen jobs in construction and manufacturing. Sunergy is also interested in installing solar panels in awnings at the airport parking lot.
The project is a first step into boosting the city's green reputation, a factor that led to the loss of a German solar panel manufacturer to Colorado last year because the company considered Colorado's reputation as a green state superior to Idaho's. It's a loss that Bieter ranked as one of the biggest disappointments of the last year.
But the solar-power development is just part of Bieter's overall plan for the city. He began by discussing how careful planning and budgeting has allowed the city to preserve many vital services during the recession, but that to prosper, the city needed to move forward, not stand still.
"If we do everything, we win," Bieter offered as his economic development philosophy.
He explained that this was not a call to try to be everything to everyone but to use every tool available to see development flourish. Those tools include the new branch libraries—which have helped expand library patronage by roughly 20,000 new library card holders in the last 18 months—as well as the opening of the Allumbaugh House rehab center, the revamping of languishing city rail lines into a freight corridor, the recent acquisition and potential resale of Hammer Flats, and the the first phase of the Neef River Park, which includes the now shovel-ready footbridge connecting the Greenbelt and Garden City at 36th Street.
"This is what I mean by every tool. Our job is to provide the context for you to succeed," Bieter said.
Bieter urged the audience to support a ballot measure HJR5, which would allow public airports to issue bonds to procure the funding to expand to meet demand on facilities. Idaho is the only state in the nation that lacks such a mechanism.
"As the most remote urban area in the nation, we simply need flight," Bieter said.
He once again stressed the need for a local option tax.
"If we're going to prosper, we need more tools. We can't do it by cutting alone," Bieter said.
According to the mayor's statistics, a one-eighth-cent sales tax would generate $7 million annually that could be used to fund research at Boise State. A half-cent tax, would generate $22 million annually that the mayor believes could fully fund a top-notch public transportation system including both buses and a proposed light rail.
He said he believes a local option sales tax is the most effective means of funding because it also spreads the cost to visitors, who use services like public transportation and the airport.
"We vote in state legislators who don't trust the voters," Bieter said. "All I'm asking the governor and the Legislature is give us this tool and let us have those conversations locally, so we can take it from there."
Idaho is one of only three states that lacks a local option or state funding for public transportation, the others being Alaska and Mississippi.
"All due respect to those states, I'd rather be in the majority," Bieter said.
The mayor acknowledged that these were likely the toughest times seen since the great depression, and said that he agreed with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that we rise or fall together.
"We will have success if we don't look back at what we've lost, but look forward to what we stand to gain," Bieter said.