More often than not, the words "We need to talk" precede disappointment. But in March 2011, when longtime city of Boise employee Doug Holloway (who has since become director of the Parks and Recreation Department) used those same words to grab the attention of Boise Urban Garden School Executive Director Erin Guerricabeitia, it triggered one of the Treasure Valley's most ambitious--and least known--projects.
Three years later, almost to the day, Guerricabeitia stood in a nearly vacant, three-and-a-half-acre lot on Five Mile Road, near Ustick Road, on Boise's West Bench.
But when she looks at the acres of dirt, Guerricabeitia sees what most of us can't see: a state-of-the-art home for BUGS--the successful Boise nonprofit that reaches out to thousands of Idaho schoolchildren each year--plus a nearby playground, a so-called "sprayground" and plenty of green space which will, soon enough, become the latest jewel in the city's collection of neighborhood parks.
"But this story goes way back, a long time before that 2011 conversation," she told Boise Weekly. "And it all starts with Dr. Trudy Comba."
It was October 2000 when longtime outdoor educator Dr. Cecilia "Trudy" Comba donated a parcel of undeveloped land at Five Mile and Ustick to the city of Boise. She hoped that the city would build a new park in the West Boise Bench neighborhood, but those dreams were overwhelmed by weeds as the recession wiped away most of the city's plans to build new parks and/or libraries.
"The Combas were heartbroken," said Guerricabeitia, "and nearly 10 years went by before Dr. Comba's daughter, Kathryn Metcalfe, approached BUGS with an idea."
Not content with giving up on the land (even though it was now owned by the city of Boise), the Comba family applied for a neighborhood reinvestment grant in order to build a community garden at the Five Mile Road property--but they wanted BUGS to help get the garden going. Guerricabeitia remembers it well; it was her first week on the job at BUGS.
"And that's when Doug Holloway came up to me and said, 'We need to talk,'" she said. "He said, 'Here's the deal. The Comba family wrote the grant and it has been accepted; but this neighborhood doesn't know the first thing about how to start this garden. Do you think BUGS can help?'"
The Boise Urban Garden School started modestly in 2004 with a handful of volunteers and their hopes of getting some dirt under the fingernails of Idaho schoolkids. Since then, 3,500 youth are served each year through BUGS education programs, where more than two dozen gardens have been created at elementary schools. Additionally, BUGS hosts its wildly popular summer camps, where each June through August, kids ages 10-15 spend five weeks in the garden, kitchen and at a BUGS produce stand.
"Just this past January, we hosted a daylong workshop to help educators get going on their own gardens, and we had teachers from Boise, Meridian, Middleton, Kuna, Star and Hailey in attendance," said Guerricabeitia. "Plus, for the first time this year, we're handing out special grants to four schools where they'll get some money to start their own gardens, and each school will receive a garden mentor through the University of Idaho Cooperative Extension."
Meanwhile, at the Five Mile Road location, BUGS had helped--with some success--to create a neighborhood garden. But the Comba family, growing increasingly anxious to see a park on its donated land, wasn't satisfied with the snail's pace of getting anything done, let alone funded.
"How can I put this?" said Guerricabeitia, thinking for a moment. "Dr. Comba's daughter, Kathryn Metcalfe, is one very strong-willed woman. She kept insisting, 'My mom's dream is going to come true.' And sure enough, the next thing we know, the Comba family is meeting with the mayor's office. And wouldn't you know it? The city somehow found the money to green-up that space, plus some more money to build a great playground. And if that wasn't enough, the city of Boise is about to build a so-called 'sprayground' there. It will have splash pads and fountains to keep kids cool during the summer--it will be the first of its kind in the city." Construction of the sprayground is set to begin in the next few weeks.
But Guerricabeitia and BUGS were the biggest benefactors of what came next. In September 2013, Dr. Comba said she wanted to set up yet another meeting, this time with BUGS and Holloway, who had meanwhile become the director of Boise Parks and Rec.
"And this time the Comba family said they were going to renovate the barn," said Guerricabeitia with a laugh.
What barn? As Boise Weekly walked around the Five Mile site with BUG-in-chief Guerricabeitia, there was no barn--let alone any building--in sight. But, once upon a time, there was a so-called "barn," a building that sat unused on the property for many years. What was once an early childhood development center, shaped like a barn, had been vandalized and ultimately became unsafe. In fact, the building had to be demolished just a few weeks ago.
"So yes, they're going to construct a new building and, yes, it will be shaped like a barn," said Guerricabeitia, pointing to a drawing of the planned facility. "The entire barn will be about 1,500 square feet, enough for 30 students. It will include a kitchen, storage, meeting rooms and big barn doors that will open to the park."
The plan also includes the construction of a nearby pergola--an open-framed sitting area where vines can grow, providing some outside shade to six or eight picnic tables. Several feet away will be a new half-acre BUGS garden in addition to a still-flourishing quarter-acre neighborhood garden. Additionally, a new produce stand will be constructed, so that BUGS kids can continue to sell their garden's bounty to the public.
But the Five Mile property is a far cry from BUGS's current headquarters.
"We're currently in a one-windowed basement of a building at 15th and Hays streets. But in Boise's North End, people are already drinking the Kool-Aid. Most of them are already into gardening," said Guerricabeitia, waving an arm across the new space on Boise's West Bench. "Out here, the public schools range from 45- to 80-percent of Title One kids." She was referring to the federal aid program that assists some of the nation's neediest children. "Plus, there is a pretty large population of refugees who live out here. I think we can really do some good here "
But BUGS has much more than just a garden to grow. The Comba family has agreed to finance the building of the "barn" but the nonprofit will have to finance the rest of the amenities.
"That means the commercial kitchen, the classroom and the garden component. It's going to easily cost us $50,000-$60,000," said Guerricabeitia.
That's a pretty big piece of change, considering that BUGS's annual operating budget is a bit more than $100,000--about 30 percent coming from grants, 20 percent from earned income from workshops and summer programs, 10 percent from sponsorships and the rest from individual donations. The nonprofit's highest profile community event each September is its harvest dinner, which is held, quite appropriately, in its garden. But the affair, which nets about $11,000, is much more casual than most jacket-and-tie and party dress fundraisers.
BUGS's new public/private arrangement with the city of Boise to utilize space in a city park is something that City Hall hasn't seen in decades. In fact, the operating agreement with the Parks and Recreation Department will be similar to contracts that were crafted with the Boise Art Museum, Discovery Center and The Idaho Historical Museum, which also sit on park land.
But perhaps the most impressive part of the BUGS deal is that, after sitting idle for more than a decade, the park will come to life in just a matter of months.
Dr. Comba, now in her 80s, couldn't be happier. The benefactor, who spends much of her time in Hawaii, is planning on being in Boise for the opening of what will become, naturally, Comba Park.
"Are you ready for this? Our plan is to have the park open on July 1," said Guerricabeitia.