Idaho Joins BMW 

Boise State and Brookings put heads together for a better future

Last month, Melissa Lavitt, dean of the Department of Social Sciences and Public Affairs at Boise State, and Boise City Council Member David Eberle flew to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas to join the advisory board of Brookings Mountain West, a partnership between the prestigious Brookings Institution think tank and several Western universities.

Brookings, based in Washington, D.C., is one of the most influential public policy think tanks in the country. Its Mountain West initiative will examine how federal policies can aid the rapidly growing region.

"We're pretty jazzed about this opportunity," Lavitt said. "It will be useful, probably critical, for the state to look at this regional political partnership."

Since 1996, the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program has been providing decision makers with cutting-edge research and policy ideas for improving the health and prosperity of cities and metropolitan areas. Last year, a generous $14 million gift from the Lincy Foundation enabled the UNLV to create the BMW--a project that focuses specifically on metropolitan areas in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and now, Idaho.

"This provides a great opportunity for students and faculty at Boise State University to conduct high-impact research with one of the country's leading think tanks," Lavitt said.

Directed by renowned urbanologist Dr. Robert Lang, the research will provide information to help these metropolitan areas adapt to economic, social and environmental challenges.

"Boise wasn't included in our original Mountain Megas report, but we feel that its economy and its growth in many ways are similar to the other megas in the region," said Mark Muro, Washington, D.C.-based co-director of Brookings Mountain West.

Boise has since been included in BMW's Mountain Monitor report, which looks at the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country--Boise ranks in the lower 80s.

"Boise jumped out in the report as it has one of the more surprising stories," Muro said. Muro explained that nationally, Boise was assumed to have an ideal and diversified economy, and its current economic struggles came as a surprise to many. "We strive to give a sense of what's going on locally, be known nationally."

Eberle and Lavitt hope that this opportunity will help Idaho to have a voice nationally.

"We have much to learn from them and they from us," Eberle said. "Federal politics tend to jump over us, and we're largely neglected. This collaboration allows us to begin articulating our strengths and weaknesses and become a voice on a national level."

Eberle said that linking Boise State with the Brookings Institution will help satisfy the unmet need of a socio-demographic political center to complement existing business-economic research in Boise.

In the recent Mountain Monitor report, it was shown that Boise has not performed well in relation to the other metropolitan areas through the recession.

"That's concerning," said Boise urbanist Chris Blanchard, a project manager at Boise State's College of Social Sciences. "What is really concerning to me, anyway, is what happens when people become mobile again. Once the real estate market improves, I think that people may look at reports like this and try to find places where the long-term economic outlook is better and safer. That could cause us to lose some people in Idaho."

The initiative is looking to answer questions that will help policy makers improve the state's economy, Eberle said. Questions such as, "How do we know we're growing as an economy that is so different from our traditional economy of mining and agriculture? Where are our linkages? Where are our trading partners, and what do we have that they don't?"

Muro said that joining the advisory board will be advantageous for Boise, the state and the Intermountain region.

"We'll be looking to Boise for ideas and as a sounding board," he said. "It will be a conduit to filter in national issues."

While there's much to gain from the partnership, it does not come without hurdles.

"There's a large gap between the endowments we get here compared to the funding Arizona, Denver and Nevada are getting. Trying to climb into those heights is going to be a real challenge," Blanchard said.

At Boise State, the partnership with Brookings is seen as a boost, as the university attempts to reshape its image as a competitive research institution.

"The beauty of this project is that we were picked to be Idaho's branch of Brookings--a center of information which makes us the college to invest in, if you're interested in furthering the public domain," Lavitt said.

Eberle, Lavitt and the other members of the BMW advisory board will meet again in the fall. Until then, they'll be working to get the program up and running. A new Mountain Monitor report will be released this month showing some progress toward recovery, Muro revealed.

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