A Nation in Full
Within days, America will pass the 300 million mark in population. Behind the numbers, the changes are dramatic. A look at the biggest:
The challenge for city planners is as difficult as it is stark: find enough room, housing, and jobs for more than double-or perhaps even triple-Boise's metropolitan area population, 530,000, as it charges toward 2030, when the population could reach 1.5 million people. "What we have today, we have to find room for again. ... That's daunting," says James Grunke, economic development manager at the Chamber of Commerce, looking out his eighth-floor conference room windows toward the foothills.
Daunting perhaps, but such growth is the envy of most mayors, though truth be told not all that uncommon among Grunke's regional peers. For four decades, at the expense of the Northeast and Midwest, the South and West have taken off as America's fastest-growing areas, buoyed by immigration, lower costs, and recreational opportunities. Between 1990 and 2000, all five of the fastest-growing states were out West: Nevada (66 percent), Arizona (40 percent), Colorado (31 percent), Utah (30 percent), and Idaho (29 percent). Between 2004 and 2005, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas were also among the fastest-growing states. Massachusetts, by contrast, declined in population between 2000 and 2005.
"It's so cheap," says Patrick Sweeney, bike messenger and bartender, who left San Francisco two years ago and bought a house in Boise for $121,000. "And the traffic isn't anything like California. That's why I got out." Adds Sue Williams, 49, who used to work at AT&T but left Redmond, Wash., for Boise less than two months ago and is renting an apartment with her 10-year-old son as she looks for a house: "We wanted to buy a house, and you can't buy in Redmond for less than $500,000." Over 80 percent of Boise residents say recreational opportunities are one of the city's top draws; 125,000 people floated through the center of town on the Boise River last year.
Seattle, Portland, and California's biggest cities provide the majority of new Boise residents each year. Unemployment in Idaho's Treasure Valley region, including Boise, Meridian, Nampa, Caldwell, and surrounding towns, rests at 3 percent. And though still a relative bargain, housing prices skyrocketed 29 percent in the past year, the second-fastest rate in the country behind Bend, Ore.
At first glance, it's hard to imagine the nation's most isolated metropolitan area running out of room. Drive less than 5 miles southeast from the city on Warm Springs Avenue: Cow pastures lie to the north, a small ministorage park to the south. Yes, there is still a lot of land left. But it's being purchased at a feverish pace by developers. In Ada County, one of the two largest counties in the region, 19 planned communities are either proposed or under construction. That has led to lengthy discussion about land use and economic development.
Two years and $1 million later, the valley region has yet to finalize a comprehensive plan to manage growth. Each municipality has its own vision. It might as well be the Old West in Boise's sprawling suburbs, such as Meridian-which since 1990 has grown six times in size to 66,000 people. The suburbs, says Ada County Commissioner Fred Tilman, are in an "annexation war" to acquire more land. Economic planners are also concerned about how to ensure that Boise is attracting solid jobs. "I do have some worries that we're an economy of people building houses for people building houses," says Jeffrey Jones, Boise's head of economic development. The region is spending $5 million over the next five years to attract 5,000 highly skilled jobs and stay ahead of perennial regional threats: Albuquerque, N.M.; Reno, Nev.; Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, Colo.; and Salt Lake City. Then there is the traffic problem. Only one highway serves the region and almost no one uses public transportation; that could change with a light rail system, but only if planners are able to raise enough money to get one built.