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These days, the Boise mayor and council seem deeply uninterested in addressing urban decay problems south of the Boise River. Hundreds of Boiseans are at risk of being evicted from rickety trailer parks and hundreds of school children walk to school in dangerous conditions without sidewalks, yet the city is spending huge amounts of energy (and, possibly, money) on a downtown streetcar.

Boise City should be spending stimulus and other money on finally helping neglected Bench neighborhoods with better housing, reinvestment and life-safety features such as sidewalks. Unlike the downtown streetcar, these are all urgent needs.

In the past two years, at least four mobile home parks have closed in Boise and Garden City. In contrast to the streetcar committee of movers and shakers, trailer park residents are the moved and the shaken. According to a Boise State University study, about 5,400 Boiseans live in manufactured housing. Half are seniors and a quarter, astoundingly, live on $900 a month or less. Most are women and nearly half have a chronic medical condition. One in four live in a park listed for sale or redevelopment.

This issue has receded with the economy, but it will return and what is the city doing now to prepare? Helping these people is complex job that will require imagination and commitment, but it could be done in partnership with local housing agencies, the Capital City Development Corporation and federal stimulus funds.

If that’s not enough of a priority, the city could focus on building sidewalks, the lack of which is a serious safety issue on the Bench. One of the reasons our family and three children moved from the Bench was the severe lack of sidewalks; we just didn’t feel safe letting our kids walk to school. Nowadays sidewalks are required – much like electricity, indoor plumbing and fire codes – but the city decades ago allowed Bench neighborhoods to be built to primitive standards. Now is a good time to go back and fix this and connect these sidewalks with the new schools the Boise School District recently built. (Indeed, the Boise School District has done far more reinvestment in neglected neighborhoods than the city.)

If the city really wants a streetcar for the economic benefits that come with it, I suggest it build a streetcar line between the crumbling strip mall at Orchard/Emerald and the mostly vacant strip mall at Orchard/Overland. Don’t laugh – a streetcar in fact used to run on Orchard Street! A modern line there would spark private-sector urban renewal the city wants and show Bench neighborhoods that they, too, are worth the good stuff. After 40 years, the city has done a great job with downtown. It is a decade overdue for the city to turn its urban renewal efforts to the Bench.

The city will say the federal funds are only for transit projects, not for sidewalks or developing decent housing, but I think that’s just hiding behind process. If there’s a sincere political will to build sidewalks or help people who are about to lose their homes, the city will find a way to do it; the money is out there. In fact, on Dec. 1, The Statesman reported new federal grants for “projects that connect destinations and foster the redevelopment of communities into walkable, mixed use, high-density environments.”

This sounds just like what we need in some places south of the Boise River. I implore the city to stop doting over downtown and get to the real work of improving lives and safety in neglected Bench neighborhoods. Follow your consciences.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in Elmore County collecting petition signatures and otherwise finding and networking with people who support our proposed nuclear plant. I like the work because I’m pretty extroverted, but there’s a sense of urgency. Wednesday, April 22 will be a make-or-break day for the plant effort, as the Elmore County Commission will hold a hearing about our request to rezone land for the plant.

Today I spent the afternoon and early evening in Hammett, a small farming town of a few hundred people between Mountain Home and Glenns Ferry, and a few miles from the site of our proposed nuclear plant.  There’s a lot of hardship in Hammett and for a Boise PR consultant used to a comfortable life, it was an eye-opening experience.

In Treasure Valley, as hard as we have it, I think we’re largely insulated from the worst of the economic downturn. To really see a town suffering, spend some time in Hammett. Given the events of the day, the comments of some of our opposition seem downright callused toward people who are struggling to get by and find work.

I went door-to-door and to the few businesses that were open. Closer toward the Interstate, one woman and some friends stood around a car in front of her house; the engine wouldn’t start and they were waiting for a friend to come and help.

“Will there be work there for women?” she asked me in Spanish. “I worked at the potato plant for 13 years and they laid me off when it closed. It’s really hard to find any work now.”

I told her we will make it a point to hire from Elmore County and if someone has a clean background, a good work history and completes training, we will have a job for them in construction or operations – if and when the plant is ever open (my mother is from Mexico and speak fluent Spanish). I’m paid to communicate and I do it well, but I really felt helpless. I could offer promises and hope, and my assurance I’m working as hard as I can to get the plant built, but I could do nothing to help her life immediately.

I heard loud banging around a group of mobile homes. I found two men repairing a car body with a hammer. They signed my petition, but told me they didn’t have much faith the plant would get built. Companies have let Hammett down before, they said, by not hiring much locally, or closing their factories.

“We’ve got to get something built around here,” said one of the men.

Another woman told me Hammett is always neglected, not getting the services and infrastructure it should have, and believed that would continue even if the plant were built.

“If the plant opens, it will just be a pissing match between Glenns Ferry and Mountain Home to get the benefits,” she told me. “Hammett won’t get anything.”

I’m typing this blog in the comfort of my home in Hidden Springs. Today, I was an outsider in a town where people are having a hard time coping with job loss and recession. I spent  the day getting some peoples’ hopes up. Now, it’s time to deliver and devote all of my energy to the goal of developing the power plant, so that our team and the Elmore County Commission will come through for the people of Hammett.

I spent today in Glenns Ferry doing community organizing (take that, Barack Obama!). One of my clients is Alternate Energy Holdings Inc., which has proposed a large nuclear reactor near Glenns Ferry in Elmore County, about 65 miles southwest of Boise.

I drove to Glenns Ferry eager to meet with residents, particularly local small business owners who are suffering since the loss of a potato processing plant and other local employers. My head was filled with facts and figures and enthusiasm for working to bring the stable, well-paying jobs that come with a power plant. The owner of a local gourmet foods store said if I really wanted to find lots of supportive people, I should go to the local VFW hall, where volunteers were distributing food baskets.

The desperation of many of the town’s residents really started to sink in at the VFW hall. My first action was to hold the door open so an elderly lady could cart out boxes of donated food. Inside, people formed a line and passed by tables of volunteers to receive food. Yes, I got many people to sign a petition in support of the plant, but I felt empty. These were people of all ages, many abilities, with families and skills and great contributions yet to be made. What kinds of skills would be needed at the plant? several asked. As I ran down the list of typical jobs, I never wanted our plant to be up and running as much as I did then. Each one of these people deserves a good job and I kept them foremost in my mind as a continued meeting with other business owners throughout the day.

I also attended a Glenns Ferry City Council meeting today. Local officials in Glenns Ferry, from what I have been able to tell, strongly support our project and they realize the need for economic development. The meeting began with Liz Woodruff, a Snake River Alliance representative, briefly apologizing for her behavior at a meeting two weeks ago (I did not attend that meeting). At that meeting, AEHI CEO Don Gillispie updated the city council on our proposal and, from what a number Glenns Ferry residents have told me, her behavior included rolling her eyes, giggling, smirking and generally acting rude during Don’s presentation to the council. I’ve seen her act that way at other public meetings, so it’s a pattern.

Woodruff’s behavior two weeks ago made an impression on a number of Glenns Ferry residents, so it is understandable she felt the need to apologize today for being “visibly upset” and acting “unprofessionally” (her words today to the council). She said today her “upset came from misinformation being spread” about our proposed reactor (in other words, her behavior was Don Gillispie’s fault). I am pleased to report the audience accorded Woodruff the respect she should have given Don Gillispie. Glenns Ferry people – even those who disagree with our plans to build a plant – have at all times been polite to me.

As I sat through Woodruff’s presentation, though, I kept thinking what she would have told the people picking up food at the VFW – if she would even care to go there – and what she is doing in her own community organizing work to bring more jobs to Elmore County.

It’s easier to obstruct than construct, to tear down rather than build up, to lash out rather than listen respectfully. But that’s not the kind of community organizing that’s going bring people jobs, opportunity and industry.

Good work by the Greater Boise Auditorium District and the state for putting in a request for federal stimulus money to finally build a larger downtown Boise convention center.  I did some PR consulting work for GBAD in 2002 and I applaud their persistence in trying to get this important part of our economy in place.

The Idaho Division of Financial  Management has submitted a list of agency and private sector requests for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It’s asking for $30 million for a new convention center in downtown Boise, called the Idaho State Convention Center. The convention center will be on a parcel of land GBAD  owns between 11th and 13th streets on the east and west, and by Front and Myrtle streets on the north and south.

Agencies and companies all over Idaho have submitted $4.75 billion in requests. Smaller projects include $5,200 for doors at Blackfoot schools, while larger proposals include $48.2 million for a new Canyon County Jail, $33 million for wastewater system improvements at the City of Meridian and $210 million by Idaho Wind Energy LLC for a wind farm (hopefully environmentalists won’t oppose it too much).

GBAD has put funding the convention center to voters twice before, where it got a majority of votes but missed the 2/3 supermajority. A deal with a private developer also fell through, although GBAD Chairman Stephenson Youngerman said Oppenheimer Development may unveil blueprints for the new convention center in March. Given all the design that’s been done, this should be a shovel-ready project.

In the interest of public openness – and their own success – I encourage GBAD to announce the request formally, with a news release but not much other fanfare. This would give them a chance to talk about how many people they’d put to work on construction and the obvious economic benefits of having an expanded convention center. The stimulus money is exactly for projects such as this.

I do support the stimulus spending, as long as it’s for capital projects. If future generations are going to pay off a share of the stimulus, we should at least leave them some working infrastructure they will need to sustain their economy. That includes safe schools, good roads and bridges, airports, sewer plants, energy generation and, yes, convention centers