First Impressions

[First Impressions]

IDAHO FALLS - "You can always tell a man by the shoes he wears," my father used to tell me. "If you take pride in how you look, you probably take pride in the work you do. That's who I want to hire."

What's true for people is true for cities. First impressions matter. Drive through a downtown with unswept sidewalks, empty storefronts and poorly-maintained facades and you'll probably keep on driving. Spruce it up and folks will probably start stopping.

It's a lesson not lost on Idaho Falls, a city of almost 60,000 residents on the upper Snake River, home to the Idaho National Laboratory and a gateway to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The fourth-largest city Idaho, it is the commercial hub of eastern Idaho and western Wyoming. Its downtown, no surprise, is critical to the future of both the city and the region.

HUD funds are at play in its downtown. The City of Idaho Falls has been entitled to receive allocations of HUD Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG, funds since 2004. Now in its 50th year, the national CDBG program has provided much-needed Federal resources to states, metropolitan counties and cities and towns of all sizes. CDBG's not a blank check. Its authorizing legislation specifies that CDBG can be used for one of three and only three purposes - to principally benefit low- and moderate-income residents, to meet urgent community development needs and to eliminate conditions of slums and blight.

Decisions on the what's, where's and how's a community spends CDBG funds and meets these three objectives are made by that community. CDBG's flexible, from-the-ground-up approach is why it's one of the most popular Federal government's programs. Just ask a local official. Like Julián Castro, now HUD's 16th Secretary but who previously served for three terms as Mayor of San Antonio. "CDBG is a program that actually matters where we live," he's said. "It enjoys bi-partisan support primarily because it is inherently flexible, allowing states and local communities (and their residents) to decide for themselves how to invest in their local priorities."

Idaho Falls is a case study in CDBG's flexibility. Annually it receives from $340,000 to $450,000 in CDBG funds. It uses the funds to meet a host of priorities, from code enforcement to paving streets, making the homes of income-eligible families ADA accessible and to upgrading senior centers. From providing supportive services to the homeless to offering affordable legal aid to grandparents raising grandkids and victims of domestic violence. From replacing sidewalks to acquiring sites for Habitat for Humanity to build affordable homes.

[First Impressions] [First Impressions]

And, yes, to spruce-up downtown. "Say what you will about downtown Idaho Falls," The Associated Press once observed, "but there's no denying its character." Indeed, almost as soon as you drive up Yellowstone Avenue, down Broadway or along Memorial Drive in downtown, you can't miss the "character".

Idaho Falls, in fact, is a treasure trove of historically-significant buildings with more than a dozen former banks, hotels, government office buildings and even a former five-and-dime on the National Registry of Historic Places. They're the "building blocks" in a strategy developed by the City and the Idaho Falls Downtown Development Corporation to make downtown "a more vibrant place for businesses, shopping, entertainment, and social gatherings." Which is why the City allocates about 30 percent of its CDBG funds - more than $700,000 since 2005 - to addressing blight and slum conditions through a downtown façade improvement program.

Downtown businesses have responded. So far 83 projects - 27 new or refurbished facades, 9 roof and 7 awning replacements and 27 signage projects - have been completed. No, a building does not need to be historically-significant to qualify. But its owner must contribute a match of at least 25 percent and be a little patient since grants are approved on a first-come, first-serve basis.

An "old" downtown is getting a big-time facelift. That's been a boost for the economy, not just during The Great Recession when facade renovation was about the only game in town for out-of-work construction workers, but also as the economy's recovered. New stores, services and restaurants have opened. Idahoan Foods even relocated its headquarters downtown, adding 75 jobs.

Thanks to the support of three Mayors, the City Council, the city's Historic Preservation Commission, and the State Historic Preservation Office and lots of private businesses the vibrancy's back and downtown Idaho Falls is enjoying an economic renaissance. That's good for the city, good for the region it serves.

When Idaho Falls, then Eagle Rock, was first settled in the 1860's there wasn't much more to downtown than a ferry that, transported fortune-seekers across the Snake on their journey north to the goldfields of Idaho and Montana. 150 years later it appears the goldfields now are in downtown Idaho Falls.


Content Archived: January 24, 2017