BOISE – As Boise braces for more booming growth, rural Idaho has prepared for a very different challenge.
Since 2010, more than half of Idaho’s 44 counties have seen hardly any population growth. Thirteen counties have actually lost more residents than they’ve gained, boasting smaller populations today despite Idaho’s title as the fastest-growing state in the nation.
While the Boise metro area has swelled, nearby Elmore County has shrunk, dropping in census estimates from 27,038 people in 2010 to a low of 25,790 in 2015. Like many other counties, Elmore has regained ground over the last two years, reaching 26,823 residents last year – but still below its 10-year peak.
The county’s largest city, Mountain Home, has mirrored those population ups and downs. Residents and officials think they know what drove people away.
“This is the loneliest city I have ever been to in my entire life,” said Justin Abel, one of the 300 new residents of Elmore County in 2016.
He believes Mountain Home is particularly isolating for young adults, many of whom lose friends to the rotation of airmen through nearby Mountain Home Air Force Base.
The city’s demographics have followed a trend common across rural Idaho. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of Mountain Home residents ages 55 and older grew – but all other age segments shrank across those years, according to analytics company Buxton.
So, Mountain Home officials are trying to give young people a reason to stay. Mayor Rich Sykes said he’s trying to court companies to lay fiber so the city can offer fast internet.
With that would come free, public Wi-Fi in Mountain Home parks, some of which Sykes hopes to remodel as part of a downtown revitalization. Nearby, he proposes building a splash pad that would become an ice skating rink in the winter. And on the business front, he hopes to bring an industrial park to Mountain Home.
“If I’m a younger person and I go downtown, there’s nothing for me there,” Sykes said.
Officials brought in Buxton and tourism consultant Roger Brooks (who helped with the revitalization effort for Caldwell’s Indian Creek Plaza) to map out a plan for a fresh, new Mountain Home. The cost of the Buxton contract, at $50,000 per year for three years, was split between the city and county, officials said. It expires next year. Part of Brooks’ contract was paid for through grants; his total contract amount was not immediately available Wednesday.
The experts’ advice mirrored much of what Ada County has worked to offer in recent years: bike lanes, landscaping and a “walkable” downtown that emphasizes mom-and-pop local businesses.
“I equate it to a caterpillar. In the next two years, you won’t recognize it,” Sykes said.
Even without Sykes’ plan, Buxton predicts growth for Mountain Home – though at a slower rate than a decade ago. The company’s projections, derived from U.S. Census data, suggest the city by 2022 will recapture its 2010 population of 14,232 people.
But Buxton predicts Mountain Home will still have fewer residents ages 24 and under than it used to. And the number of people over age 55 will continue to grow, the company projects, with senior citizens seeing the highest proportional growth between 2017 and 2022 of any age demographic.
In spite of those numbers, Courtney Lewis, Mountain Home’s director of economic development, is optimistic. One-third of Mountain Home’s population is between 20 and 36 years old, Lewis said. The median age is just 32.5 – a slight uptick from 2010’s median of 30.9. (Buxton predicts it will increase to 33.4 by 2022.)
Benefiting from Boise’s boom
Lewis believes Boise’s population boom is trickling into Elmore County.
Earlier this year, the Census Bureau named Mountain Home the No. 9 fastest-growing micropolitan area in the country by percentage increase – the 730 new people Elmore County got between 2016 and 2017 tied it with Ellensburg, Washington, for a 2.8 percent population change. (Sandpoint also made the list at No. 7 with 2.9 percent growth.)
“The massive in-migration Idaho is getting, we’re feeling it too,” Lewis said.
Cristina Drake, a former Meridian realtor who moved to Mountain Home last year, said vacancy rates are low and home prices are rising.
“The cool thing is, housing is cheaper than it is in Boise, and you’re only 35 minutes away,” Sykes said.
But reversing a decade of population decline isn’t as simple as enticing families to stay with projects like Sykes’ park overhaul. Nor is it as easy as leaning on the nearby Air Force base to bring in fresh faces.
“We don’t want to rely solely on the base. We want jobs in manufacturing, good family-wage jobs. Then we can recruit from Boise,” Sykes said, laughing.
Those relationships can be difficult to negotiate. Sykes and Lewis said they’ve tried in the past to bring postsecondary education to Mountain Home through working with Idaho community colleges, to no avail. It took recent transplant Abel to bring a vocational tech option to the city – with a twist.
A different kind of school
In July, Abel opened the Academy of Art and Apprenticeship, a vocational school of sorts. Abel is the school’s primary teacher, and its curriculum follows his unique set of skills.
A licensed tattoo artist in his home state of Missouri, Abel was surprised to move to Idaho and learn the state doesn’t require any sort of certification to perform tattoos or body piercings.
“(The Academy) teaches people how to tattoo the right way, and it gives them the ability to start a business from scratch with little money,” Abel said.
He’ll offer classes in drawing and oil painting, apprenticeship opportunities for tattooing, and courses on blood-borne pathogens – Abel is a Red Cross-certified trainer. He also has a degree in business, and will offer classes on web design and bookkeeping.
Class sizes will be small – four to eight people at a time – and completion will take about three months, Abel said. He knows not everyone is interested in tattooing, so his students can mix and match courses to focus on fine arts, business or esthetics if they prefer. He hopes to add photography and other courses as his staff grows, and he’s trying to partner with Mountain Home High School and Bennett Mountain High School to certify teenagers in CPR and other introductory medical licenses. Currently, graduates will get a certificate of completion for each of their courses, and those who complete blood-borne pathogens training, AED and CPR classes will be certified through the Red Cross.
The Academy is not yet accredited – though Abel has applied for accreditation through the Idaho State Board of Education – making the lack of financial aid a potentially serious obstacle. Tuition can cost as much as $5,000 for a full set of classes, or as little as $110 for only AED certification.
But, Abel said, there’s a cost to education elsewhere, too.
“I know how hard it is to drive to Boise for a very small opportunity,” he said. “We can bring people in for education so they stay here. They won’t have to move somewhere else just to go to school.”
Just like urban renewal in Mountain Home, continuing education is a multifaceted puzzle, one that requires creating interest and sustaining it. That consistency could be key to the town’s future.
“I think Mountain Home has an impending growth. … However, if the young people keep disappearing, it will die off,” Abel said. “You have to have interest to pass the torch.”
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