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Our Changing Idaho: Future Growth Of Small Towns Could Hinge On Proximity To Big Cities

Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
American Falls is a city built on agriculture just west of Pocatello. Several potato processing plants call the town home, including Lamb Weston and Driscoll Potatoes.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the influx of people flocking to the Gem State boosting populations – and changing the fortunes – of a majority of Idaho’s cities. However, smaller communities aren’t seeing the same spikes.

A visit to one town on the banks of the Snake River revealed a city that’s placidly getting by, despite seeing a downturn in residents.

After a three hour drive east from Boise, the turnoff for American Falls is finally the next exit. Leaving the freeway, the road into town arches over the highway and leads into the heart of town. After passing by some towering grain elevators which are on the outskirts of the city core, there’s a park that forms the town square; several old churches line the oasis.

This is where the tour of American Falls starts. Jammed into a red Volkswagen Jetta, longtime city councilwoman Kristen Jensen and her husband – the school superintendent, Randy Jensen, are showing off the highlights of the community.

“I’ve been a member of the American Falls City Council for 27 years,” Kristen says. “I also do economic development work for the city of American Falls and Power County.”

Driving through the city’s downtown – passing the Rockland Pharmacy with its kitschy neon sign and pointing out the newly dedicated band shell in the  central park, Kristen shows herself to be something of a booster.

Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
The Rockland Pharmacy sits in the heart of American Falls' downtown. It adjoins the city's only grocery store, Ken's Food Market, and includes a soda fountain specializing in milkshakes and malts. The sign dates from the early 1960s and was moved to its downtown home in the 70s.

“There really isn’t much negative you can say; that’s why we’ve been here for 30 years,” she explains. “And we’ve had many opportunities to take careers in other places, but, at the end of the day, we love being here and I don’t think we’ll ever leave.”

American Falls is situated in Power County. Out of the six Idaho communities to shed residents according to 2017 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, it lost the most people. Government Figures put the number of residents at 4,280.

“The interesting thing is that, of Idaho’s 200 incorporated cities, 167 of them have less than 5,000 people,” says Janell Hyer – a seasoned analyst with the Idaho Department of Labor. 

According to Hyer, the big cities of Idaho – Boise, Meridian, Pocatello and the like are population magnets. It’s a different story for those small towns with fewer than 5,000 people.

“Even though our small communities may not have lost population this year, they’ve seen kind of a decrease over the past few years because there are not the jobs there – there’s not the opportunities, so [residents] go elsewhere whether they stay in Idaho or whether they leave,” she says.

Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
Kristen and Randy Jensen have been in American Falls for about 30 years. Randy is the superintendent of schools, and Kristen is a longtime city council member. She's had her seat on the council for 27 years. In addition to being an elected official, she also travels frequently doing economic development work trying to recruit new businesses to come to Power County and the surrounding area.

After driving around the revamped downtown, the Jensens want to show off two different boat launches. At the first is a campground and a waterfront café that’s been a community fixture for decades. The couple recounts the recent makeover the facilities received, the great fishing to be had in the American Falls Reservoir and the location’s status as one of the best places in town to snap photos of the sunset.

From there, it’s a short drive along the shores of the manmade lake to boat launch number two, northwest of the city. Standing on a newly-installed dock, the reservoir splays out and the roar of American Falls, the waterfall, can be heard.

Then it's back in the car to drive over the dam holding back the reservoir before heading to a park near the dam overlooking the Snake River and the waterfall. It’s an impressive sight.

Back to the car again and talk turns to industry in town.

“The community itself exists because of agriculture,” Kristen Jensen says. “We’ve had about $19 million in investments over the past year in expanding agricultural businesses.”

As the car passes by some industrial buildings, Kristen’s husband, Randy, points out one of the biggest employers in town.

“Over here to the left, you’ll see Driscoll Potatoes,” he says. “That’s a potato processing plant as well. We’re driving out to a place called Lamb Weston. They have the distinction of being McDonald’s number one French fry producer every year.”

The tour concludes back at City Hall and Kristen, the longtime city councilwoman and economic development specialist, talks about the town's downturn in population and what she makes of it.

Credit Idaho Department of Labor
Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, this graph shows population changes in Power County (the home of American Falls), each county surrounding it, Idaho's most populous county -- Ada and the state itself from 2010 to 2017. Power County was one of only two counties to see a population decline in the most recent figures released by the Census Bureau. The other was Clearwater County.

“We actually have only lost about 36 people,” she declares with a smile. “So it makes it sound like we’re really losing a lot. While it may look like we’re declining, if you look at our community we don’t feel that we have a void. We actually feel like we’re maintaining. We’re a pretty solid, stable economy here.”

While she selects the word “stable,” a few residents of the small community who prefer to remain anonymous describe the city as stagnant. They point to a lack of shopping options: There’s just one grocery store in town and some other retailers folded in recent years.

When asked about the descriptor of “stagnant,” Jensen acknowledges the closures but says the city is poised for continued growth. She points to the $19 million in investments the town received in 2017. She says new potato cellars and equipment upgrades at the city’s ag employers lacks the glamour of a new movie theater.

“We don’t expect this to become Salt Lake City, or Boise or Idaho Falls,” Jensen says. “We love American Falls for what it is. Maintaining the businesses that we have and the economic stability with our farm community suits us well and we’re able to be very sustainable.”

Just 20 minutes from Pocatello, American Falls and other small cities offer a different pace of life from the expanding metropolitan hubs. Janell Hyer, the analyst at the Idaho Department of Labor, says that could help sustain those littler towns.

Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
The American Falls dam can be seen behind the waterfall of the same name. To the left, perched among the churning water, is the powerhouse from the first power plant built to channel the energy of the Snake River at the dawn of the 20th century.

“Unless they’re really remote, they’re easily accessible to a large city, and people may not want to live in a large city so they will take advantage of those small communities,” Hyer says. “So I think as the state continues to grow, they will benefit from some of the spillover.”

Along with American Falls, the two largest cities to see population declines in recent years are Orofino and Gooding. Both locations are less than 45 miles away from the cities of Lewiston and Twin Falls, respectively. With Idaho growing as fast as it is, just how far the spillover effect extends is anyone’s guess.

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