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Notebook: Quiet Downtown Boise has echoes of 1980s. Tomorrow depends on today’s actions

Tamarack: Thrill, Grill, Chill
COVID-19 Idaho

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK

The story of Downtown Boise’s rise, and fall – and rise again – is almost legendary. Early attempts at urban renewal tore down block after block, chasing a hoped-for downtown mall.

But the idea didn’t work, and city leaders made a u-turn and built the thriving Downtown Boise we see today. Or, perhaps, saw.

Like so many of you, I’ve been working from home in recent weeks. But Friday, I needed to check the PO Box and grab a few things off my desk. The experience in the downtown core was surreal. It reminded me of this video showing Downtown Boise in the 80s.

I briefly stopped and bought a few items and chatted with a downtown store owner. While we stayed more than ten feet apart, the palpable sense of concern was hard to miss. The owner laid off most of the staff last week and cut hours.

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Parking data from the Capital City Development Corp. shows the quick decline in activity. The number of spaces in use dropped by nearly half in just a week.

All over the downtown core, restaurants – many with expensive leases and extensive interior improvements – sit empty. Most quickly pivoted to drive-thru and pickup, but that takes a much smaller labor force – leaving many employees without jobs. While Boise hovered near-record-low unemployment in recent months, that number will likely move northward in a hurry.

[Need takeout? Here’s a look at restaurants that are open for pickup or delivery]

Walking along Capitol Blvd., I witnessed a literal tumbleweed sitting in the middle of the street. The metaphor might have been a little too on the nose – but it was hard to miss.

What comes next?

At some point, the COVID-19 crisis will ease. Social distancing will fade into memory. Businesses will open again. But in the bustling center of Idaho’s capital city, like so many other hubs around the country, what will the ‘new normal’ look like? Will telecommuting become more normal? Will dining room-less restaurants become commonplace? Will the retail sector, already in the midst of a long-term slide to online shopping, see further changes? And will the thousands of restaurant and retail workers find new employment?

Much like the story of Boise’s early attempts at urban renewal, the post-COVID-19 story won’t come together in a few weeks. The impact will be felt over the coming months, years – and maybe even a generation. The moves leaders make in coming weeks will set the groundwork for what comes next. From the chamber of commerce to city government to the statehouse to developers and business leaders, it will take a concerted effort to keep a primary engine of our local economy humming.

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