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How Does Idaho Innovate?

By Adrian Rehn

“So…what is JUMP?” Joe Gagliardi, CEO of the Folsom Chamber of Commerce, spoke for our entire delegation as we stood atop the 6-story monolith in downtown Boise, Idaho.

JUMP – or “Jack’s Urban Meeting Place” – is a bizarre, Jetsons-inspired building built by J.R. Simplot, the billionaire farmer most famous for supplying Idaho and Oregon-grown potatoes for use in McDonald’s fries. The building serves as a towering public hangout spot, tractor museum, classroom, and features a 5-story-tall spiral slide down to the ground floor. I still don’t know what it is, but it’s pretty cool!

For 12 straight years, the El Dorado County and Folsom Chambers of Commerce have collaborated to bring local leaders to pioneering cities and towns across North America. The goal of these “study missions” is to see firsthand new ideas for advancing livability and economic growth, and to take these learnings back to the Sacramento region. In 2018, our group of 24 participants – current and former elected officials, businesspeople, and community leaders – headed north to Boise and the smaller resort town of McCall over four days to see how Idaho is innovating.

My major takeaways:

  • GROWTH: The Boise Metropolitan Area is the fastest-growing in the entire U.S., currently home to around 700,000 people (half of Idaho’s population).
  • The City of Boise has some great things going for it – it sits in close proximity to mountains and agricultural land with a vibrant riverfront, is home to the second largest Basque population outside of Europe, and has an entire City Department dedicated to Arts & Culture. Boise is the most geographically isolated of all mid-size cities in the contiguous U.S., which has resulted in a burgeoning creative culture (“because there is no other place to go!”) among other unique qualities.
  • HOMELESSNESS: The homeless population in the Boise region is about half that of Sacramento County on a per capita basis, but these folks were nearly invisible downtown and throughout the trip. The police department aggressively arrests those who sleep outdoors, have open containers, or who commit minor infractions. It is unclear what the continuum of care looks like or how many homeless individuals fill Boise’s jails.
  • EDUCATION: Boise State University has a College of Innovation & Design campus downtown, which is building programming around virtual reality (VR), “pop-up majors,” cooperative education, and new ways to make college affordable in partnership with local credit unions.
  • One Stone School in Boise is a tuition-free alternative nonprofit high school that allows students to design their own education. In fact, two-thirds of their Board of Directors are students! Revenue is generated from sponsorships, hosting classes, providing creative services to clients, and other community-facing work that students lead. They have yet to have a graduating class, but are building ad-hoc partnerships with colleges and universities so that students can still be accepted into top-flight schools despite non-standard testing.
  • RURAL-URBAN CONNECTIONS: McCall, Idaho is a 3,000-person mountain town two hours north of Boise that expands to over 10,000 during ski season and peak summer. The town is grappling with a deep housing crisis, with service workers commuting in daily from as far as the Boise suburbs.

Boise and McCall should be commended for innovating despite little to no support from the deeply austere State of Idaho. These municipalities are experimenting with creative approaches to financing, public-private partnerships, securing federal grants, and more to bring housing, broadband, skilled workers, and investment to their areas.

I want to thank the El Dorado County and Folsom Chambers of Commerce for putting this trip together and bringing amazing people along. It’s important to leave our region – physically – to learn how other areas are excelling and sometimes failing within their unique circumstances. The community that is built while doing this important work is an added, awesome bonus.

All things considered, the lessons of Idaho will help the Sacramento area become a more livable place. To keep up with Valley Vision’s work to advance livability in our region, subscribe to our Vantage Point email newsletter!

Adrian Rehn is a Valley Vision Project Manager overseeing the Cleaner Air Partnership and Valley Vision’s online communications.