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More Than a Drive-Through Town

Garden City holds onto vision even in hard times

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In 2006, Garden City officials came out swinging with an ambitious comprehensive plan that would revitalize and redefine the 4.2 square miles that make up Garden City.

The 49-page plan outlined the city's ideal vision, from improving its reputation to creating a downtown with "grand boulevards." The plan even won an Idaho Smart Growth award for its bold new vision and consistency with smart growth principles.

Three years and an economic downturn later, the "new vision of the future" is not so visible.

"It's true, we're not seeing a lot in new development," said Mayor John Evans. "But the gloves are still on."

Evans said Garden City has to "live within [its] means," admitting that administrators keep one-third of the city budget in reserve in case of hardship. "And we're doing a fine job."

He added that while the economy may have stalled some projects, they're seeing good progress in other areas.

Anyone who has driven through Garden City in the last two years may have noticed a new business or two--coffee shops, a Walgreens store, some restaurants--but for larger-scale development, one has to spend some time exploring Garden City.

"There's a lot to Garden City that you probably haven't seen," Evans said.

For one, the city has been putting the "garden" back in Garden City by planting trees, opening a new park between 45th and 46th streets, adding a certified arborist to the city staff and improving the Greenbelt, which connects Eagle, Garden City and Boise.

Evans, himself a part-time city employee, also praises the increase in volunteerism and civic pride.

"It's not uncommon to hear people say that they've changed their address from Boise to Garden City," he said.

Evans also touts a falling crime rate and the city's reputation for having the strictest law enforcement in the area.

His job, Evans said, is to "bridge where we are now and where we want to be when the economy picks up again." For the city, that means improving the necessities, such as sewer systems and trunk line extensions, and dealing with deferred maintenance issues like ground water infiltration.

"Our job is to facilitate new development by ensuring that the underpinning is there, but it's the private business sector that makes growth happen," Evans said.

Over the years, Garden City has welcomed nonprofits such as the Boys and Girls Club, the Learning Lab, the Garden City Community Clinic and, most recently, the Northwest Animal Companions events center and thrift store, which came to town in March.

Located across from Expo Idaho on Glenwood Street, NAC Executive Director Troy Jackson said the animal center chose Garden City to build its combination thrift store, events center and veterinary office because of the prime location on a busy intersection and to help a community that carries such a bad reputation.

Jackson said that Idaho has more pets per house, per capita, than any other state in the country. At the same time, Idaho is also the fourth worst state when it comes to animal care.

"It has a terrible rep for animal care," Jackson said. "And the Garden City area doesn't have a shelter or animal programs."

The NAC works to rescue, spay, neuter and find new homes for animals. Its thrift store, called Re-Style, sells everything from clothing and books, to furniture and collectibles, with proceeds benefiting foster care, low-cost spay and neuter services and animal adoptions.

At 37,000 square feet, the NAC's Corridor on Glenwood is among the largest events spaces in the Treasure Valley and will host all manner of activities at a fraction of the cost of other event centers.

"It's our way to be involved and give back to the community," Jackson said.

The NAC's 40,000-square-foot building, a former supermarket, sat empty for 15 years. Jackson said taking over old buildings is good not only for the charity, but it also helps construction workers and small businesses.

"That's a lot of bricks and space just sitting there," Jackson said. "It's discouraging to see. Now is a great opportunity to groom and bloom in Garden City."

A couple of miles away, on the east end of town, an artisan community is emerging in what the city has named the Live, Work, Create District--a zoning designation that allows artists to live, create and sell art in the same place.

The neighborhood, along Chinden Boulevard, has mainly been known for its adult shop, tattoo parlors, car lots and pawnshops. But Irene Deely, who owns the Woman of Steel Gallery, hopes it will soon be an artists' destination.

Deely and other artists founded Cre8ive Juices--a 501(c)3 nonprofit that is actively applying for grants to help develop programs that promote the arts and creative development in Garden City.

The group's main projects include building a "pocket" sculpture park for large-scale outdoor installations and turning the 30,000 square feet of bare land behind the Visual Arts Collective, on Osage Street, into lofts, studios and teaching space. Both projects are still in the gestation period, but Deely said she has full intentions to bring them out of hibernation when the economic tides turn.

"The recession has definitely curtailed the speed at which we have been able to proceed," Deely said. "Funds that we had hoped to steer toward this development have been derailed. However, other sources are being explored, and the dream has not by any means died."

In the meantime, Deely has been giving back to the community by celebrating its history in the form of an annual Dragon Parade, which was recently recognized with an official state legislative proclamation for being a viable cultural contribution to the city.

Achieving one of the largest and most desired visions outlined in the comprehensive plan--the creation of an urban downtown--is still in the discussion stage. Evans said "there's a lot of talk" regarding the Expo site, which Garden City would like to see transformed into a downtown core, but no concrete plans have been set.

If the Expo site is ever redeveloped, Evans would like to see ownership of Lady Bird Park transferred to Garden City and the park moved to another location--possibly closer to the Greenbelt. Though within Garden City limits, the park is owned by Ada County.

"It's my impression that it's a notion that's under consideration," he said.

Out of all the action items in the city's comp plan, Evans said efforts to improve Garden City's image are gaining the most traction--driven in large part by community involvement and events such as the Dragon Parade and the Boys and Girls Club's annual Fun Run.

"We're perceived as real," he said. "Not just a playground. We're getting things done and have other people ask us 'how did you do that?' There's a level of respect and recognition that Garden City hasn't had before."