To grow or not to grow: A look at the no-longer-small towns of Idaho
BOISE, Idaho (CN) — Ten years ago, a drive down the main road of Star, Idaho — a town of 5,000 people in 2010 — would take you through vistas common to the townships of rural Idaho. Battered barns, a corner mercantile shop and an old motel that the elementary school kids swore was haunted.
But today, 10 years and a tripled population later, that drive looks much different. The mercantile shop stands, but many of the barns have been torn down and replaced with modern homes. Development and construction are never far out of sight – or earshot. And where the old motel once stood sits a brand-new McDonalds, where the kids who used to dare each other to venture into the supernatural now walk into for a quick bite.
This has become a typical story across the Treasure Valley, Idaho’s central stretch of land tucked between its mountains where most of the state’s people live. Migrants from the West Coast make their pilgrimage to a state that markets itself as being a haven for uncomplicated living. Many settle down in its biggest city of Boise, but many more opt to settle in the small towns most Americans have never heard of. After years of this, those small towns don’t look so small.
Now the people of those towns, who once watched from afar as Boise endured its growing pains, are tasked with navigating those pains themselves. Some have embraced the change; others have decided to get out of Dodge. Many are somewhere in the middle.
Take Chuck Crowe, owner of a small store called Grandpa’s Attic in the town of Kuna. Chuck, who has been in Kuna all of his life and took over the store from his mother a decade ago, remembers when the town held just 500 people. Now it’s knocking on 30,000, and Chuck says that business has never been better.
“With more people, we get more business,” Chuck said. “Right now it’s some of the best we’ve ever had.”
But while Kuna’s growth has been good for his store, he is not without his own reservations.
“It’s too much, too fast,” he said. “And nothing around here is keeping up with it. I think the cities are getting greedy, and whatever comes across their desk, they sign off on it. We just need some time to catch up.”
Idahoans like Chuck are generally excited for growth and they know its benefits, but they fear it’s moving at a pace they can’t keep up with. They see constant construction, unprecedented traffic congestion and wonder if this is still the small town they’re used to.
“It’s hard to get anywhere,” Chuck said. “Every direction you turn, it’s solid construction. Everywhere you go you end up making six or seven detours because the road is being torn apart. . . And I see people that are looking for even smaller towns. People that have been here for years. I’ve known quite a few people who’ve decided it’s just become too much and moved where it’s smaller.”
Star and Kuna, though on opposite sides of the valley, have had similar reactions from locals when pressed about their growth. Many Kuna residents say were thrilled when the town got its first Arby’s location not long ago, but balked when their property taxes shot up to help expand the schools due to the influx of new families.
Star, meanwhile, is seeing houses that were sold for $200,000 a decade ago hit the market for triple that today, with a current median listing home price of $600,000. And they don't stay on the market long.
One of the biggest supporting voices for Star’s growth comes from its mayor, Trevor Chadwick. Mayor Chadwick has been in Star since Star became an official town in 1997, and he says that while he understands the fears that come with growth, change is something that happens regardless. And under his watch, he wants Star to navigate its change as intelligently as possible.
“If Star didn’t grow the way it’s growing today, then cities would just grow around us,” Chadwick said. “We can track our own destiny, we’ve adjusted our plan to reduce the densities. It’s all about the planning and how you grow. . . People don’t want to see things change, and I get that. Do I want to see things change? No. But I do want to see things grow responsibly, and I think we’ve done a good job responding to that growth.”
The mayor and others say that no matter how difficult growth can be, it is often better than the alternatives offered by stagnation and an unwillingness to build. They point to the housing market as a prime example. Residents are frustrated with rising property costs and what feels like a never-ending cycle of building and filling new homes, but if small towns stopped building altogether it would create a housing market far more challenging than it is now.
“Housing prices will go way up if you have no inventory,” Chadwick said. “Say we decide to not build any more houses, and a house goes on the market. . . people could pay crazy money for houses that really aren’t worth that much. It’s important for us to keep building housing to keep the affordability as best we can. If we were to stop growth, it would become very unaffordable.”
Even the traffic, mind-numbing as it is, could be made much worse if small towns decided to work against the growth instead of with it.
Star struck a deal with the Idaho Transportation Department where it can collect $1,000 dollars for each new residential unit built there. The money will go toward widening and improving the roads that are underfunded by the state. The mayor is also pushing for the state to speed up their timetable on planned improvements for Star’s main road, improvements that were not set to start until 2035.
“The traffic relief is coming, it’s just going to take time,” Chadwick said. “And none of that relief would happen without a little bit of growth to help pay for it.”
Despite the changes whirling around the Treasure Valley, it’s not hard to find remnants of the small-town living experience many Idahoans have grown nostalgic for.
Travel north of the valley and begin climbing the mountains and you might come across Idaho City, an old mining town that holds about 500 people. Drive down its main road — or walk, it’s a short trip — and all the sights once common to the valley remain. Vintage hotels like the Prospector Motel still very much in business, a few saloons and a trading post.
Ask the locals up there if they would like to see growth spread to their slice of Idaho, and the answers will be curt. One local, when pressed for their thoughts on the valley’s growth, said only that “they can keep it. We’re fine up here.”
According to some Idahoans, that reluctance to embrace growth stems from a fear that once they do, their small-town identity will vanish. Money and people will roll in, and their small-town character will melt away.
But Mayor Chadwick does not see it that way. He believes that a small town’s identity does not come from how many houses are built or what new population milestones are reached. It comes from how people band together during change.
“There are some people that worry that we’ll lose that small town feel, our identity of being a small and friendly community. And my philosophy is the size of your community doesn’t mean that you’re going to lose that small town feel. It’s about how you treat people. It’s the spirit and heart of the folks, and the ability and willingness to help each other when times are tough.”