10/06/2011 Visionaries in Boise History

October 6, 2011

My involvement in the Boise civic community and knowledge of the city’s history sometimes brings me welcome invitations to participate in things that I really love. Last week, I was asked by the Boise Chamber of Commerce to conduct a tour for their 2013 Leadership Boise class, a program from which I graduated in 2005. Leadership Boise takes existing and future leaders and spends two years teaching them about Boise and its inner workings. Throughout the first year, the class meets once a month to tour facilities and hear experts talk about subjects such as business, education, politics, and infrastructure. The group’s focus for the day in which I participated was Boise’s quality of life, and I was asked to give two 1-hour tours focused on the history of the Greenbelt, Boise parks, and the Boise foothills.

National magazines have frequently written about Boise over the past 8-10 years, praising its entrepreneurial culture and its outdoor accessibility, including biking and hiking trails, 43 miles of riverside greenbelt, ample park space, and the surprisingly clean (yet urban) Boise River. It is important to remember that these things didn’t just happen spontaneously. By the middle of the 20th Century, Boise was on a path of least resistance that included polluting rivers and overbuilding in the foothills. But starting in the 1960s,  elected and non-elected leaders in the larger Boise community offered a different vision for what this valley could be for its residents, and the size and relative youth of our town meant that the town’s political and business structures were (and remain) accessible to just about anyone. Many people who had a vision for Boise were able to achieve it in that supportive civic environment. For example, a history of successful entrepreneurship in Boise produced a philanthropic legacy in turn, particularly visible in Boise’s “string of pearls” parks along the Boise river named for influential women in Boise’s history, including: Julia Davis, whose husband represented pioneer agricultural success; Ann Morrison, whose husband founded Morrison Knudsen which became the preeminent dam builder in the West; and Kathryn Albertson, whose husband started the Albertson’s grocery chain.

In this relatively open community with no history of Tammany Hall-like graft and corruption, average citizens like Bill Onweiler, who spearheaded the Greenbelt idea (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dskPRdi2k9I), ran successfully for City Council in the late 1960s on a platform of open space and parks. Others like Ward Parkinson (co-founder of Micron) worked from inside the business community to ensure that private landowners along the Boise River understood the vision and provided easements to the City. Still others like Anne Hausrath, who emigrated to Boise from the eastern seaboard, aimed to protect the City’s foothills from overdevelopment in the 1980s. The openness and accessibility of the City has caused citizens to feel protective of what they have; people here feel fierce pride over what the town has done for them and feel a need for continued improvement and preservation.

Talking to new and future leaders in the community gave me the opportunity to share the vision and history of Boise’s trailblazers, conveying that the stories of great places are written by visionaries, and that there’s usually a long list of them.  I hope that this class of Leadership Boise, as the ones that have come before it, continue to advance a vision for our community that will ensure its special qualities remain and grow for generations to come.