Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Love letter to Idaho Falls

I have lived in (or near) Idaho Falls, Idaho for 16 of the past 21 years, and I love it. I plan to spend the next 20 here. It has an under-appreciated cultural diversity, a tremendous community spirit and is geographically blessed -- a couple of hours from Yellowstone, the Tetons, a half-dozen other major mountain ranges and more things to see and do outdoors than most places.

That said, our towns (Idaho Falls-Ammon) can do better. Because half of our grandchildren now live in Sacramento and other family lives elsewhere in California's Central Valley, we visit that part of the country often and have found our favorite town in those parts -- Lodi. Yes, the same town defamed by Credence Clearwater Revival ("... stuck in Lodi again ...").

For many years, Lodi was a small town tucked between Sacramento and Stockton just off of Highway 99, surrounded by walnut groves and vineyards, whose wine grapes were used to make cheap wine or were shipped to Napa and elsewhere to be turned into spendier stuff. In the last generation, though, the town has firmly grasped its bootstraps to become a really lovely place, home to wineries, restaurants, boutiques and a tidy, inviting downtown.

These things don't happen by accident. Recently, we spent a mid-day and evening in Lodi during the first of the summer's farmers markets. We did wine tastings, had a great light lunch on a Main Street patio, listened to live music, kibitzed with the locals and did a whole bunch of people-watching. The main drag had been closed to automobile traffic and was packed with people, many of whom were not from Lodi.

Besides a few wine tasting rooms in town, the countryside is dotted with dozens of wineries with their own tasting rooms and the whole area has the feel of a place where its residents and leaders care and work very hard to create a great place to live and visit. All one must do to know that this requires a cooperative effort is to visit any of a dozen unnamed towns elsewhere in the region, where that sense of pride and community spirit is not apparent.

Idaho Falls-Ammon does not have wineries or vineyards. It does, however, have a downtown with huge potential (larger in size than Lodi's) and is full of smart and caring people who could match or exceed what Lodi has accomplished (for another example, visit Walla Walla, Washington). We're doing some great things in Idaho Falls, but we don't compare favorably to other similar-sized towns that have set a higher bar. What's missing? I've not done a lot of hard-core research, but here are my suspicions:

1. There is not a good collaborative relationship between the people leading the city and those in charge of the surrounding county, which share space in downtown Idaho Falls. We need stronger leadership that both demands change and has the vision to make it happen. This lack of cooperation extends to Idaho Falls and its neighbor, Ammon, which can't even get a stoplight put into one of the region's most dangerous intersections.

2. Owners of Idaho Falls' downtown real estate seem not to be willing to work together to make progress happen. It takes money, effort, organization, cooperation and vision, all of which seem to be lacking to one degree or another.

3. What you sense in Lodi is a passion for the place. While I know that a good many people in Idaho Falls feel equally passionate about their hometown, it's not in as much evidence as it is in Lodi. Passion needs to be translated into action.

4. I suspect that it took patience and commitment to turn Lodi into the place it is today. We in Idaho Falls-Ammon need that same level of patience and commitment, focused on a practical but ambitious vision. For example, years ago consultants talked about turning several streets in downtown Idaho Falls into a pedestrian mall. Nothing has happened. We have a parking problem, real or perceived. Granted, Lodi doesn't spend four or five months buried in snow, but its weather isn't perfect -- summers can be sweltering, winters can be clammy and grim. You work with what you have.

5. This doesn't have to be led by governments. Competing farmers markets can combine into a single awesome one. Building and business owners can use their existing organizations to make real progress and demand more action from their elected officials. It seems as if we're all waiting for someone else to act.

I hope this comes across as it's intended -- a love letter. We have many great organizations that are doing amazing things. We have a remarkable museum that brings in world-class exhibits. We have an arts council that has renovated a beautiful old theater and brings in great artists, both performing and visual. Investors have turned a former gravel pit on our river's west side into a business park and potential retail and residential center. We have a spectacular greenbelt, a beautiful baseball park, an amazing symphony, a remarkable zoo and an admirable history of making things happen. The most recent example of the latter is this year's passage of an auditorium district to help build an events center.

Still, we can do better.

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