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Leaders of Three Cities Speak at “State of Downtown” Meeting

The Downtown Boise Association held its annual “State of Downtown” meeting Wednesday morning at the Grove. The event featured a discussion among Dave Bieter, the mayor of Boise (population 210,000); Greg Nickels, mayor of Seattle (population 580,000); and Suzy Ageton, deputy mayor of Boulder, Colorado (110,000). Marc Johnson of the Gallatin Group served as moderator.

The three city leaders spoke for close to an hour. Here are a few highlights:

Transit – With about half our population, Boulder is way ahead of Boise. The city will have light rail by 2012. Meanwhile, its bus service runs seven days, serving downtown, the University of Colorado campus, and major retail areas with 12- to 15-minute frequencies.

Nickels noted that he was a member of the King County Council when it voted for light rail in 1988, and that a line to the airport will finally open in 2009. On average, he said, it takes 13 years from the time a community decides to pursue light rail to the time it actually opens. Bieter said we don’t have that much time. “Two years ago, I said we had five to 10 years to get it done,” he noted.

Politics – Idaho’s political climate is different from that in Washington, where a sales tax and small motor excise tax help fund transit, or from Colorado where, Ageton said, “We as a city have benefited from the progressive politics of the state of Colorado.”

But Bieter sounded a note of hope, saying, “It’s been my experience that you never can tell when a tipping point will be reached in the Idaho Legislature.” Transit remains an issue, he said, “that they now know with certainty won’t go away.” The community college district vote on May 22 is another opportunity to show support for the needs of our growing metro area.

Even with state cooperation, however, the hurdles will remain high, especially when two-thirds majorities are required to pass most issues. “We don’t cross the street without a two-thirds majority in the state of Idaho,” he joked. Nickels sympathized, noting that he doubted whether Seattleites could agree on a two-thirds vote over whether “today is Wednesday.”

College towns – All three cities represented today are major college towns, with Boise just now gaining that position. Nickels said that while city government used to practice a policy of “containment” toward the University of Washington, it now realizes that the UW – among the largest research universities in the U.S. – is a major economic driving force. Ageton said that Boulder, too, derives huge benefits (including several federal research facilities) from being home to CU, and that the city and university have several joint standing committees to address such issues as alcohol abuse and parking, as well as the need for a convention center. Both visiting mayors also sounded support for community colleges as “feeder” institutions to help students gain job skills and start their college careers.

Green cities – Bieter recognized Nickels as originator of the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Nickels noted that Seattle’s new library, a LEED Silver building, is now the city’s third-most-popular tourist attraction. “It makes a statement to the world about Seattle,” he said, noting how he wants his city to be the Green building capital of America.

Asked to name their biggest challenges, Ageton said it is addressing continued growth pressures within the framework of Boulder’s longstanding “slow growth” policies, which have defined open space around the city and prohibit buildings taller than about five stories. Nickels said transportation of people and goods is a key concern, as is providing housing that is affordable to the people who work in Seattle.

Bieter again mentioned the difficulty of funding infrastructure in the state of Idaho, adding “we need all of us to be as creative as we can.” He also wishes citizens would make the connections between various challenges of growth. “People say ‘don’t allow infill,’ but they also say ‘Don’t take away my neighborhood school,'” he noted. They key, he concluded, may be engaging our imaginations to decide what sort of city we want to be.

About Jill Kuraitis

Jill Kuraitis is an award-winning journalist who specializes in news of Idaho and the Rocky Mountain West. Her B.A. in theatre management is from UC Santa Barbara, and she went on to work in theatre, film, and politics before writing became a career. Kuraitis has two excellent grown children and lives in Boise with her husband of 30 years, abundant backyard wildlife, and two huge hairy dogs.

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  1. As an addendum to what I wrote, Greg Nickels’ concern about moving people and goods largely has to do with what the heck to do with Seattle’s much-hated Alaska Way Viaduct. Here’s a (somewhat long) story on that:

  2. Thanks for the report, Julie, sounds like an interesting gathering.

    Curious point you make about “college towns” though — I lived in Madison, Wisconsin in the mid-70s, when the city had a population about where Boise is now by your numbers, and a University with 60,000 students enrolled during the year and 20,000 in summer. That is a college town (and another state capital). Boulder is a college town. Eugene. Moscow. Seattle is a metropolitan city. Boise… I’m not sure what Boise is, but I would not call it a college town.

    Other than the bizarre phenomenon of Bronco football mania, BSU does not seem to particularly dominate the nature of life in Boise the way UW does in Madison, UO in Eugene, CU in Boulder, UI in Moscow or WSU in Pullman.

  3. On college towns: I thought Tom van Alten’s comment was going in a different direction. Madison was a college town, and that is what has turned it into the growth hub of Wisconsin, with a metro population nearing half a million and globally significant positions in a number of industries, mostly to do with biomedicine. The college town atmosphere is perfectly calculated to attract knowledge workers. In the case of Madison, it’s more so becasue the university is central, in nice bits people visit, while the economic growth is sprawl. So UW’s domination of Madison then, and the image of that domination now, is precisely why Madison is such a diverse and successful place. Ditto Boulder.

    Or take Ann Arbor, smaller and less diverse, but the lowest unemployment rate in Michigan (an achievement!). Why? Because it offers college-town ambiance and amenities, whether it is UM bringing in the culture or just the books-and-coffee-and-art downtown. That means a large part of the knowledge workers for the whole SE Michigan area live in or around Ann Arbor, and it would be harder to recruit and keep them without it (hell, Bill Ford himself lives in Ann Arbor).

    And if you want a final Midwestern case that doesn’t depend on a giant university, Waukegan, Illinois, would not have a middle class left if Shimer College didn’t operate a nice physical plant, decent cultural offerings, and some student life in what is otherwise a rather decayed place. That story, in which a college is almost all that puts a place on the map, is very common.

    Upshot: It pays to accentuate anything that makes you resemble a college town!