Accept growth! Correct Boise’s emerging anti-growth attitudes! This was the message coming from the Boise Valley Economic Partnership Summit on May 23.
This advice came most notably from Utah, a state much like Idaho and one with an urban area similar to the Treasure Valley, the Wasatch Front. The principal growth cheerleader was the CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, Theresa Foxley. She noted that Utah is the eighth most urbanized state in the country, with 80 percent of its residents clustered between the Great Salt Lake on the west and the Wasatch Mountains on the east and from Ogden on the north to Provo on the south.
Population and jobs growth has exploded in this corridor in good measure because of the state’s education system, she said.
Among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Idaho and Utah rank 50th and 51st in per-pupil investment in K-12 education. However, they have used their money (and their cultures) well enough to rank in the middle of the 50 states in the quality of pre-K to 12th-grade education, according to US News and World Report. Utah is 22nd and Idaho 26th. But then the two states part company.
In higher education, Utah ranks 6th while Idaho is 35th.
How, exactly, has Utah done so well? One answer can be found at Utah Valley University, the largest Utah university by student population. You’ve probably never heard of it.
Rail anchors Utah’s population coridoor
Another reason Utah has advanced so rapidly in this century is a remarkable urban railroad which spans the entire corridor.
As it happens, I took my first ride on the system earlier this month. For my trip along the Wassatch Front, I boarded what is called, naturally, the Frontrunner near Ogden. I rode it to Provo to see an old high school buddy (having only buddies who are old).
It’s quite an eye-opener. Anyone in the Treasure Valley serious about Idaho’s future as an urban state should take the trip. It feels a bit like Europe, with the first floor of each car reserved for bicycles and luggage, and then two levels for passengers above, like the old Union Pacific dome cars.
Utah’s urban railroad owes its existence to the 2002 Winter Olympics which built the core of it to transport athletes and spectators. It benefited from superb timing: the federal government was investing heavily in rail at the time and has continued to support those systems it helped start. Today, riders pay about half the cost of while federal, city, regional and state governments pay the other. Financially, it would be a heavy lift for the Treasure Valley to catch up and duplicate.
Utah’s economic accomplishments are clearly visible from the train. New buildings flank much of the road from downtown Salt Lake City south to Lehi. After a bucolic section where one can see deer, osprey, fishermen and women and horse pastures, development then explodes again from Orem into Provo.
Riding south from Salt Lake City means passing through what has been nicknamed the “Silicon Slopes” for the dozens of companies that have moved there from California and Nevada. Many of the big names are here: eBay, Microsoft, Oracle, Adobe, Ancestry, etc., include a large Micron plant in Lehi. Equally numerous are matching housing developments, mostly apartments but also dense clusters of townhouses.
Utah Valley University: little known, large impact
In future columns, we’ll try to figure out how this all came about but clearly visible from the tracks in Orem is one reason: Utah Valley University in Orem.
I’ve known about Utah Valley for years but as a technical school, a community college and then a junior college. However, in 2008 the Utah legislature made it a four-year university. Today it has more students than any university in Utah, 39,931 last year. It appears to specialize in science, technology, health, education, business and boasts a state-of-the-art digital education center.
All in all, Utah has 184,000 university students, just slightly less than the 200,000 residents of Salt Lake City. Depending upon how you count, Idaho has 50,000-70,000 currently enrolled.
What Utah Valley’s transformation calls to mind is the possible future of the College of Western Idaho. Utah Valley was created in 1941, CWI in 2009. Utah Valley has nearly 40,000 university students while CWI fewer than 9,000 full-time-equivalents. CWI is already filling an important niche. It will need to fill a much bigger one as a two-year institution while the Treasure Valley struggles toward one million residents.
Utah got where it is today in lockstep with the advancement of Utah Valley from technical institute to university, within a surge by the entire Utah higher education complex, from Utah State in Logan around to Brigham Young University in Provo.
Where does Idaho go next?
Finally, let’s flip to the recent Brookings report on Boise and three other mid-size cities summarized here by Don Day and Kevin Reickert. Brookings says Boise’s long-term prosperity is questionable because “…the education system in Idaho hasn’t kept up with the human capital demands of local industry.” In other words, the opposite of what has happened in Utah.
Left for future consideration are at least two other questions. First, might the railroad right-of-way that runs through the Treasure Valley from Caldwell to Micron someday provide mobility and economic advancement similar to that on the Wasatch Front? (Part of the Utah system is bus-based and often free, for example from Utah Valley in Orem to and from Provo, home of BYU. We’re not just talking about rail).
Second, and related to the first, when will Idaho’s state government recognize this is an urban state? When will it cease treating its cities and counties like stepchildren? Utah is 80 percent urban now; however, Idaho was 71 percent urban in 2010 and moving fast toward 80. Growing up cannot happen too soon.