A New Way to Look at Boise (Block by Block) 

City initiative to detail neighborhoods' needs

AnaMarie Guiles, city of Boise Housing and Community Development manager, unveiled the Energize our Neighborhoods Initiative April 3.

Kelsey Hawes

AnaMarie Guiles, city of Boise Housing and Community Development manager, unveiled the Energize our Neighborhoods Initiative April 3.

In the early days of 2004, shortly after Dave Bieter had been sworn in for his first term as Boise mayor, he gathered many of his top staffers into his City Hall office and said: "I want you to start measuring everything!"

Bieter laughs when he recalls his freshman enthusiasm. Quite naively, he wanted the city's top executives to start pumping a flood of statistics to his office, in order to effect change.

"They looked at me..." he paused for a moment to reenact his staff's incredulous response, with quizzical expressions, arms stretched out and shoulders shrugged. "They said, 'What are you talking about?'"

Simply put, Bieter, like so many idealists before him, thought in 2004 that it was relatively easy to get boots-on-the-ground data to drive exciting new initiatives. But he quickly learned that reality begins where idealism ends, and gathering valuable data is a system-driven and, quite often, costly endeavor.

So, Bieter was more than a bit impressed more than a decade later when AnaMarie Guiles, city of Boise Housing and Community Development manager, stood before the mayor and City Council April 3 to unveil one of the city's most ambitious but measured projects--something he wished had existed when he first took office.

"This is the mother lode," Bieter enthused.

"This" is something called the Energize Our Neighborhoods Initiative. In particular, Guiles said her proposal would take one Boise neighborhood at a time--beginning with the blocks surrounding Vista Avenue--and measure what she called 12 "key indicators" in the area.

"For example, nearby Whitney Elementary School has the city's second-highest rate of students who are eligible for free or reduced lunches," she said. "Plus, we're seeing that 51 percent of that neighborhood is below the median income for the city."

The Energize our Neighborhoods Initiative is designed to collect never-before-seen information regarding Boise's neighborhoods: economic, health care, social, safety, transit, education, you name it.

The project's initial price tag is considerable: $3.1 million. But Guiles was quick to say that the funds would not necessarily be new monies, but rather a reallocation of existing resources, such as grants funneled through the city's Housing and Community Development, Public Works and Police departments, among others.

"Beyond that initial funding, I should say, yes, I think there will be a need for additional new resources, presuming we want to duplicate this in other neighborhoods," said Guiles.

The big takeaway from the pilot project, which could take the better part of three years, is that the city of Boise would have a new model to bring better services and new projects or initiatives to all of its neighborhoods.

Members of the City Council, who had been patiently listening to Guiles presentation, jumped into the conversation.

"We could look at the distance between households and food stores. So-called 'food deserts' is an important consideration," said Councilman David Eberle. "And we could see if each household has at least two transportation options."

"We need to make sure that we're properly using a lot of our current resources before deciding if new resources are necessary," added Councilman Ben Quintana.

"And, of course, private-public partnerships are a big part of this," said Councilman TJ Thomson.

That's when Derrick O'Neill, Boise's Planning and Development Services director, walked to the front of the room to rein in some of the brainstorming.

"We're trying to walk before we run," he cautioned. "Having 30 or 40 indicators might be difficult to manage."

Jade Riley, the city's chief of staff, reminded the Council that a somewhat similarly themed boots-on-the-ground process had served them well previously in one of city's most successful initiatives to date: the introduction of three neighborhood branch libraries (with plans for a fourth).

"Mr. Mayor, this is a lot like what we did with the libraries, but here, we're really taking this concept to the next level," said Riley.

And that was music to Bieter's ears.

"Let's go ahead and try this in one of our neighborhoods," he said.

Sooner than later, the innovative process is set to begin--with particular focus on the Vista neighborhood.

"And our first premise always has to be that the neighborhood really wants this," said Guiles.

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