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The Boise Mystique 

by Cara Gardner


I've just spent three days and two nights in Boise trying to figure out why there's so much more buzz about Idaho's capital city than there is about Spokane. Boise has become a favorite hotspot for the California elite and retiree crowds, was recently rated one of the most bicycle-friendly cities and is gaining a reputation as a haven for the innovative and creative.


I've spoken to business owners, economic development leaders and young people in bars. I've bugged strangers in Boise's restaurants to ask them their thoughts on the matter and have called friends who've lived in both cities for their insights.


I'm still looking for a definitive answer.


The Boise Mystique cannot be measured in the number of downtown development projects or the city's budget. There's no secret to economic success tucked away in one of Boise's boutique-y downtown stores that business owners in Spokane don't already know. There's nothing measurably different that Boise's leaders are doing to market their city that Spokane's leaders haven't also considered. There are some significant differences: Boise benefited big-time when it scored high-tech firms Hewlett-Packard and Micron, both among the top five employers in the city -- and being the state capital always helps. But the two regions are dealing with the same set of economic challenges associated with transitioning from a strictly resource-based economy to a more diversified, perhaps digital one.


The buzz about Boise is more elusive, less tangible. And that is exactly the reason every economic development consultant hired to help spur growth in Spokane, as well as multiple studies on the matter, seem to conclude that communities, like individuals, have a success rate that greatly depends on belief systems. And whereas Spokane seems to suffer from a collective self-image problem, Boise is full of people brimming with civic pride.


"Excuse me for swearing, but what makes Boise so good is that people give a damn," says Shirl Boyce, vice president of Economic Development Services for the Boise Metro Economic Development Council. A good ol' boy if there ever was one, Boyce is part philosopher, part historian, but all business. He says there's a can-do attitude in the Boise region that encourages people to work on new endeavors. "The 1907 promotional brochure for Idaho says, 'If you're desirous of changing your abiding place and you're willing to share the burdens as well as the treasures, your welcome among us would be most cordial,'" Boyce recites, chuckling at the old-fashioned prose. "The emphasis is that if you're not willing to work, maybe you should go somewhere else. Businesses here are expected to invest back in the community. We're not telling them how or when or where, but they'll do it."


Boyce's confidence is reassuring -- and different from what I often hear in Spokane.





Not So Different


The day before I left for Boise, I attended the Spokane County Regional Economic Development Summit, put on by the county commissioners. Throughout the day, participants were reminded that Spokane isn't going to be "saved" from economic peril or stagnation. "No one's going to come in here and do it for us," people told each other. "We have to do it ourselves."


What's interesting is that while this seems like useful information in Spokane, if someone stood up and made that statement at a Boise summit, it'd be inane. Why is Boise able to "pick itself up by its bootstraps," as Boyce suggests? "I think it comes out of our isolation, that sense of working on our burdens ourselves."


And Boise has its share of burdens, past and present. It was recently rated the most sprawling city in the Pacific Northwest; in order to meet the increasing demand for housing, developers are slapping up shoddy (but still expensive) homes on farm-to-market roads that don't have gutters or storm drains. Miles of cookie-cutter homes close in on the foothills, Boise's most prized natural amenity. This week, in fact, the Boise City Council is expected to vote to annex another 1,300 acres, adding 5,500 people to the city -- something many citizens don't like at all.


Most people know that growth is both blessing and curse, but instead of learning from the way Boise is handling its rapid rise, leaders in Spokane are bemoaning their "bad luck."


"Why are [Californians] going to cities like Boise and not cities like Spokane?" Al French asked in Spokane last week. The Spokane City Councilman looked out at the room of business leaders at the Regional Summit. "They get a two-story house built in 60 days," he continued, "and I can't find a developer in this city who can do that."


Maybe Spokane should be grateful. We don't want shoddy homes on gutter-less streets. "Boise's a city with problems, just like any city anywhere," agrees Bingo Barnes, editor of Boise Weekly.


And if you think Spokane has cornered the market on dysfunctional politics, consider that Boise recently wiped its hands of its former mayor, Brent Coles, who charged the city for a roundtrip ticket to New York City for a conference, including the cost of a Broadway musical. It probably would've gone unnoticed if he hadn't then decided to chastise his City Council for their travel expenditures. What came up was the fact that the mayor and his wife also accepted an all-expenses-paid trip to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, courtesy of Blue Cross of Idaho -- and then secured that the city's health insurance contract with that very company. Both the mayor and his chief of staff were indicted by a grand jury for fraud. Even the FBI got involved.


Boise City also has air-quality issues, poor public transportation and a huge, empty pit in the middle of its downtown.


"The pit is an embarrassment to the community," acknowledges Clay Carley, a Boise developer and president of the Downtown Boise Association. "That building burnt down 18 years ago and still hasn't been redeveloped."


A public-private partnership to create a mixed-use development went sour, and now it's all tied up in litigation and everyone's sick of the whole thing. Sound familiar? Boise deals with similar challenges as Spokane, but somehow seems to handle them with more grace, pizzazz and durability. Failures aren't viewed as indicators of living in a city where nothing can get done; they're simply ideas that didn't work out or problems that will take more time.


Perhaps Spokane should hire community psychologists instead of economic development specialists. Perhaps regional leaders should aim their marketing campaigns at Spokane's own citizens and businesspeople. Because based on what people in Boise say, Spokane's a great town; Boyce says he sent both his kids to Gonzaga.


"I think Spokane is getting a bad rap," he says. All the more disappointing is that it may be spreading rumors about itself.


For example, on the plane ride from Boise to Spokane, two twenty-somethings sat behind me on the plane. She was a grad student at EWU, and he'd never been to Spokane and was asking her what there is to do. "I'd recommend Coeur d'Alene, actually," she told him. "It's a commute, but it's so much better."


See, there it is. That "Spokant" attitude; it's like a festering disease, wasting good thoughts about the city until there's nothing in your head except visions of gray, industrial, poverty-ridden desolation. If being dismally negative about the community one lived in were a disease, Spokane might be in the middle of a full-blown epidemic.


It's not that Boise doesn't have bickering leaders or failed development projects or resistance to change -- it does, without a doubt. And Boise is chock-full of high school seniors who can't wait to leave, just like here in Spokane. But for those who come back to raise their families and start their businesses, the ones in Boise, overall, seem more satisfied than those in Spokane. We Spokanites generally don't think we're cool enough. But anyone who knows anything about psychology, whether it pertains to one person or 200,000 of them, knows that nothing in your environment will change until you change your mind.





Getting Over Boise


It's 6:30 pm Friday in downtown Boise. I'm on a barstool (on business, of course), drinking something called a Fuzzy Leopard, listening to Leah muse about how bartending has become a performing art. As if to aid her idea, the two young men behind the bar are experts; they work on up to six drinks at a time, slyly tossing corks and ice and glasses back and forth -- communicating without words. But what's truly astonishing me is the diversity in the bar. No, I'm not talking ethnic diversity; Boise is as white as Spokane, which is as white as cities come these days. This is age diversity. The hipsterish, posh Red Feather Lounge is teeming with people from their mid-20s to their mid-60s. We're talking actual adults (parents and people with stock options) actually going out. At night. To a bar. Coming from Spokane, it's the strangest thing I've seen since my arrival. I'm sure Spokanites in their 30s, 40s, 50s and on up hit the town -- they don't just sit home watching Jeopardy -- but you don't see anything like what I'm seeing at the Red Feather Lounge. I'm reminded of my meeting with Shirl Boyce and Clay Carley earlier that day....


"I'm astonished at the commitment to the community," the developer Carley says. "It's a vacuum here and you're sucked into all these organizations. The buy-in to what happens here is enormous."


It's those words: "investment," "collaboration," "buy-in," that Boyce and Carley use over and over, indicating that people are intricately tied together in the success of the city. This kind of extended buy-in is about more than just getting citizens out of their homes and into the local lounge for a cocktail; it includes connecting businesses with local universities and colleges, getting politicians to manage collaborative partnerships with developers; meeting in public places and including different voices. In Boise, all this is a no-brainer.


"Our mayor sits on the [board of directors] of the Chamber," Boyce says. "There is inclusion. People don't just come together -- you have to bring them together. Are there disagreements? Certainly. People are going to disagree. But there is an effort to be as collaborative as possible. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."


Again, at the county commissioners' economic summit last week in Spokane, I noticed that most of the young professionals, from the regional representative of the Sierra Club to one of the biggest downtown developers, sat together at a table in the back of the room. They have completely separate interests, but they literally shared a table. The young professionals have tighter networks than most; they tend not to care about or focus on past failures or grudges.


The median age in Boise is going down. Part of the reason is because the region has a large number of Mormon and Catholic families with lots of children; part of it is because young people are flocking to Boise for the art and the image of a bicycle-friendly, outdoorsy city. It's a place where it always seems like things are happening.





Strong Foundations


Both Carley and Boyce acknowledge that it's easier for Boise in several ways: The city is the largest in Idaho, whereas Spokane ranks third, behind Seattle and Tacoma. And Boise seems better off, with average household incomes higher than those in Spokane; the numbers show Spokane has a bigger poverty problem, too.


Of course, Idaho's nearly monolithic Republican government has streamlined regulations and reduced taxes for small businesses, though the debate continues over whether simplifying rules and regulations is really better for all businesses. Washington has ranked higher than Idaho in a number of studies on overall business climate, and certainly ranks higher when it comes to worker environment. But one thing is certain: Businesspeople in Spokane have long complained about Washington's laws, which, despite the validity of those complaints, doesn't account for all the economic stagnation. In fact, it can often serve as an excuse not to try.


The attitude in Spokane indicates that people feel Boise is far ahead of them in a number of ways. But in the long term, and when looked at historically, Spokane is a formidable competitor.


"From an economic development standpoint, Spokane is a tough competitor," Boyce acknowledges. "One company -- I won't name names -- we competed with Spokane over chose Spokane because the universities stepped up and offered training at no cost to the company. They won because of that."


Roxann Du Bois, a recent Boise transplant to Spokane, hasn't been infected with Spokant disease yet.


"I hear a lot of crying about what Boise has that Spokane doesn't, and not a lot of celebration of [Spokane's] strengths," she says. "We moved to Spokane from Boise last March; it was in the top five cities we wanted to live in because of the outdoors, the trees, it's not too hot in the summer and it's generally a really good place. I mean, look at the number of ski resorts in a five-hour radius."


Boyce says both Boise and Spokane are struggling to grow during a time when most economic futures are uncertain.


"A strong Spokane is good for us, too, because we need to keep in mind that people are competing globally," he notes, adding that a larger perspective often lends itself to focusing on the real challenges, like competing in a global market, rather than the petty differences, like which city can build homes faster.


"Political will, strong leadership, public investment," Carley recites, as if these were the coveted commandments of the Boise Mystique.


"Spokane can do it," Boyce adds.





Last Call


I've drained my Fuzzy Leopard. The Red Feather Lounge is getting increasingly crowded, and it's time to hit the next spot. I wonder if diagnosing Spokane with Spokant disease is too easy. Wouldn't it be better to probe the actual holes in our development strategies? Maybe, but for now it's a good start to learn that the differences between Boise and Spokane seem to have more to do with mindsets than anything else. And luckily, it's a curable disease. A balanced mixture of collaboration, confidence and capital should help Spokane.


Maybe in 15 or 20 years Boise reporters will be flying in to understand the Spokane Mystique.





Publication date: 12/16/04
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