Since I moved to Idaho in 1985 the state, especially the Treasure Valley, has been on a constant growth trend. So when will it end?
In Idaho Falls the Idaho National Laboratory peaked in the early 1990s with employment higher than 13,000 people. By 2000 it was cut by almost half.
Yet Idaho Falls kept growing and grows today.
When the tech bust and 911 sunk the economy in 2001, the Treasure Valley’s growth actually accelerated in part because of the building boom. Even now that the real estate boom has faltered new people keep coming and the number of renters versus homeowners is rising.
There are some who believe that if we continue to grow at the rate of a Third World country eventually our road systems, our water supply or our energy needs will choke off our growth. Or perhaps we will become some miserable a place to live that no one will want to come here.
Bill Travis, a geographer at the University of Colorado doubts it. His new book “New Geographies of the American West” offers hope that communities that plan and direct their growth can preserve the quality of life that residents cherish. But even if the communities become sprawled and congested it doesn’t necessarily stop the growth.
Phoenix, Denver, Los Angeles are all communities whose initial charms have been sullied by the patterns of growth. Yet they all continue to grow, though in spurts and starts.
Regional planners expect Ada and Canyon counties to double their population by 2030. Even if road builders had every dollar they need they couldn’t build enough lanes to handle the traffic as well as our road system does today said Matt Stoll, executive director of the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho. If you live from Eagle Road West you might not consider today’s road system so good.
Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix are all examples of communities with water shortages that have found ways to continue growing. While water supplies are expected to reach crisis stages on the Colorado River system in the next 20 years the Snake system still has plenty of water for those with the pocketbooks to pay for it.
Power costs are certain to rise here as the low-priced hydro systems become a smaller part of the mix. But even companies like Micron don’t need low cost power to compete.
The economic drivers of the future likely will be companies who thrive on brainpower more than electricity and water. “Rooftop jobs,” business like retail outlets, dry cleaners, super markets, fast foods and other service industries will follow the newcomers and bring with them medium and low paying jobs.
Travis offers hope that residents who grab a hold of their destiny can help keep their communities livable even as they transform from small towns to urban centers just as Boise has done over the last 30 years. But he warns that in the American democratic system a small group of people can stop even a consensus plan if people aren’t prepared for a sustained effort.
The question here is whether there is yet a consensus on which direction to go into the future.