Redefining Canyon County

Canyon County officials struggle to build community while sticking to their roots

| November 16, 2011
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The plains of the western Treasure Valley roll out like thick golden quilts--a patchwork of onion and potato farms, acres of corn and other produce. Agriculture has long been the focus, but more recently, the cheap land brought people and with them scores of housing developments.

But an Oct. 7 article in the Idaho Statesman reported that since 2008, deals that slated acres of farmland for housing have since fallen through. In some cases, those acres of Canyon County land have returned to agriculture.

At the height of the housing bubble, it seemed like the line of home buyers would never end. Canyon County benefited from the bubble; buyers snapped up thousands of homes.

"It's nothing like it was in 2007," Beth Ineck, of Nampa's Office of Economic Development, said of the economy.

The housing boom translated into economic growth. Now that the boom has fizzled, where does that leave Nampa and Caldwell? Ineck and city leaders remain optimistic that there's more in store for the traditionally ag-based communities.

"We're not perfect by any stretch of the imagination," said Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas. "But whenever the economy does turn, the city of Nampa will be in prime position."

While home prices are down and family budgets low, Caldwell's YMCA still boasts 17,000 members--out of a population of 44,000. The city has also built the new Sky Ranch industrial park, the Indian Creek Project is trying to revitalize downtown, and the city has obtained riverside property for an Oregon Trail Park.

"Obviously, we've come a long way, baby, but we have a long way to go," said Nancolas.

He also described the Snake River valley as a prime wine region.

"The Snake River area just received its appellation status--the stamp of approval from the wine industry. We have the right climate, soil content, irrigation," he said. "The wine industry has become quite a tourist attraction."

Interest in the western part of the valley can be traced back to the middle of the 19th century. At one point, the area was better situated than Boise. A different transportation corridor now serves Canyon County. The interstate system runs roughly parallel to Idaho's leg of the Oregon Trail but substitutes asphalt for rutted sagebrush fields.

Interstate 84 between Garrity and Franklin boulevards is midway through a $22 million freeway widening project, scheduled to be completed in January or February 2012. That's in addition to the $15 million Garrity Bridge project, said Idaho Transportation Department spokesman Reed Hollinshead. For years the two-lane highway was only able to accommodate a fraction of its current traffic, but now the cities see the project as a gateway to their communities.

Nampa looks to attract national businesses but also to foster local growth. City leaders have started Think Nampa First!, a program modeled after Boise's buy-local movement. The city also has the Downtown Nampa Association. Aaron Brown serves on its board of directors.

"Some people want to attract big chains and out-of-town and out-of-state developments," said Brown. "Personally, I don't think that's the way to go. ... I think that's a short-term plan."

Brown said it's small, homegrown businesses that build up a town's core and its character.

"Those are the businesses that make you healthy in the long-term," he said.

Ineck believes it's good to go for a balanced approach.

"In terms of downtown, we'd like to see a good mix," she said, but acknowledged that homegrown business in a downtown core is desirable.

Along that line, Nampa is moving many of its services from a ill-fitting city block in downtown to make way for business. Plans also call for a new downtown library.

The Sorento Cheese plant has invested in an expansion, and while Ineck couldn't disclose them, two large industrial developments are on the way. Food industries choose Nampa to be close to their agricultural producers, she said.

"We have a big concentration of food-processing here," said Ineck. "But that's not as evident in Boise or Caldwell."

Those industries sprang up around the agriculture and pushed the processed goods to market via the railroads. Now cities invest in airports, pushing to get a better foothold for national airlines.

The Caldwell Industrial Airport welcomed a 9,000-square-foot terminal building in August. The airport and the new Huber Terminal mainly cater to single-engine craft for now, but the city hopes that it's just one of many infrastructure investments.

"They've had a lot of stuff going on in Caldwell that Nampa is just coming into," said Brown.

Caldwell is the sixth-largest city in the state, with Nampa at No. 2 behind Boise. Both have nabbed those spots since the 2000 census.

"I think that Nampa has lagged way behind in being a self-sufficient city because it's depended on Boise for jobs, entertainment and arts. They were Boise's bedroom," said Brown.

But Ineck, Nancolas and Brown agree that it's not that way anymore.

"Boise, Meridian and Caldwell all have their strengths," she said. There's definitely a lot of commuting that happens across county lines ... but I think we all have something that makes us special."

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