A few years ago, during the summer and away from halls of the Capitol, Idaho legislators did a tour of the southern Idaho region, seeing its economic growth and expanding prosperity. They were treated to presentations on Chobani, Clif Bar and Glanbia, all three then expanding, pulling in workers and enlarging the southern Idaho agricultural sector.
Sure, there was also commercial retailing and housing going up, but it was the southern Idaho jobs creation that most impressed legislators, accustomed as they were to urban renewal projects being used for civic structures and “pocket” projects.
They’d heard loud complaints from citizens elsewhere that urban renewal was being used to advance government expansion and to “get around” citizen votes, as well as to fund small-scale local projects benefitting the few.
The legislators then thought southern Idaho’s approach of focusing on jobs creation, preferably in the manufacturing sector, was how urban renewal money ought to be put to work, creating good-paying work in the private sector.
Then-Gov. Butch Otter called the jobs push the “Magic Valley Miracle” and the region was widely cited nationally as an emerging agricultural “hot spot” in the Intermountain West.
That was then. Today, urban renewal discussions in Twin Falls, as elsewhere in the state, have mostly reverted away from substantial job creation and toward government expansion, new “digs” for government offices and various “pocket” projects. These benefit their developers, but hold little promise for overall expansion of the valley economy.
Citizens see this and are skeptical indeed. One of the reasons former Boise mayor David Bieter is no longer mayor was his insistence on promoting a huge sports stadium, plus a multi-million dollar new library, without community support, much less taxpayer backing.
People tried to tell him, but his own hubris got in the way, basically giving citizens the I-know-what’s-best-for-you wave. So, citizens unceremoniously “relieved” him of his mayoral duties. No surprise there.
Urban Renewal Authorities (URAs) aren’t elected bodies; they’re appointed by the mayors and don’t stand for election. That makes them essentially unaccountable to citizens.
There are some limitations on how allocated money can be used but, for the most part, URAs operate independently. (Idaho Code 50). Changes in how much money URAs could allocate were passed by the 2019 Legislature, but these sideboards don’t apply to URAs already in place at that time, which is virtually all of them. (HB 217aaS, 2019 Session, IC 50-2905A).
The new law was widely seen as a way to require an approval election for Bieter’s proposed stadium project. The “citizen approval” requirement in Boise passed in November with over 70 percent of the vote, and Bieter subsequently lost his city paycheck.
The basic issue with a proposed Twin Falls downtown apartment complex is that it is of subsidized value to the developers and diverts URA money to something which even the developers say may not be a viable project. (Times-News, Jan. 16.)
The developers say that without the URA investment, it may not make financial sense. (They “don’t want to spend $425,000 up front because there’s a chance that developing the site might not make financial sense. They want to test before they invest,” as the Times-News put it.
Ok, fair enough. But why should Twin Falls taxpayers front the public money if the project doesn’t pencil out as a private sector investment? If this is such a good idea, why don’t the developers buy the downtown property with their own money and develop it themselves?
Community skepticism is a good thing in cases like this. People’s property taxes are rising sharply and citizens can rightfully assess whether any project is justified. If it just shuffles entertainment, food service jobs and maybe office locations around, is it the best use of limited taxpayer dollars?
Government subsidies of so-called “public works” projects are at least as old as Roman times (Appian Way stone highways), and careful use of URA money today ought to be a basic consideration with decision accountability.
The Legislature could fix this somewhat by requiring public votes on all proposals, and by making URA board positions elective. But so far, Idaho’s Legislature has not taken such steps.
Developers, city officials and such would likely oppose such changes, arguing that doing so would stifle Idaho’s communities, but the case for better sideboards on the process seems evident.
It may seem old-school, but public facilities, such as city halls, jails, courthouse remodels, fire stations and so-called “pocket” development projects should generally get broader scrutiny than they’re now getting. They should be approved by voters on a case-by-case basis, with chief criteria including the basic question of who really benefits? Real job creation is one such measurement, as the Chobani-Clif Bar-Glanbia investments have shown.
Sure, it might benefit Main Street retailers and move-around watering holes, but it’s an open question as to whether a six-story apartment, bars, retail, office and parking complex even makes sense for downtown Twin Falls, much less a project funded with public money.
High density living isn’t the norm in rural Idaho, nor is it easily affordable, nor does it lead necessarily to downtown “foot traffic” which some think we should all embrace for urban lifestyles.
Focusing on real job creation was what impressed legislators about the Chobani-Clif Bar-Glanbia investments in southern Idaho less than a decade ago. If projects can’t meet that standard, perhaps they shouldn’t be financed on the public dime.