A. Economic Restructuring Will Be Sustained by Organizational, Social and Physical Improvements
The turn of the 21st century is a time of severe challenge and change for rural Idaho. Natural resource-based economies are ailing. Communities and whole regions are finding their traditional ways of life in danger. It would be difficult to identify another period in the past hundred years where so much is at stake in our leaders' decisions about how to manage the future.
Idahoans have a heritage of independence and relative prosperity. In the past, collaboration between communities, governments and agencies was fairly uncommon. Today, however, social and economic challenges in rural communities all but require collaboration and outright partnerships. This is a tall order, especially where relations between such entities have often been characterized by friction and disagreement.
Boundary County is faced with some of the most severe economic and social challenges in the state. Agriculture and forest products industries have suffered greatly from a variety of national and international influences. Changes in federal land use policies have been particularly hard on the region's economy. While the economy eroded, so did the quality of infrastructure, schools, downtown Bonners Ferry, and many other regional assets. Meanwhile, a wide range of cultures accustomed to separateness hampered success for collaborative efforts that focused on improving local conditions. This separateness and a substantial recent increase in some minority populations also contributed to considerable misunderstanding and mistrust.
In the face of these challenges, a remarkable partnership (hereafter, the "Partnership") was crafted in 2000 between the County of Boundary, City of Bonners Ferry and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho. Elected leaders committed to an unprecedented collaboration to improve regional conditions. Their immediate priority was to address five challenges: two economic, two social and one infrastructure:
1. Industrial development in Boundary County
2. Downtown revitalization of Bonners Ferry, the County seat
3. Connection, via a greenbelt or "River Walk," to the Kootenai River in Bonners Ferry
4. Cultural center
5. Highway and safety improvements to the South Hill area of Bonners Ferry
The Partnership contracted with a consulting team to help citizens and leaders address these issues. Over the course of seven months, the team facilitated a community-based planning process that engaged over four hundred residents in addressing the five challenges noted above. The process resulted in this strategic development plan, guided by the Mission Statement at left.
Residents and leaders emphasized three sets of desirable ends to come from the development process, including:
* Many Collaborations, Strong Teams
* Efficiently Used Resources
* Broad Consensus on the Future
* Sense of Community & Heritage
* Rural Lifestyle Sustained
* Excellent Learning Systems
* Stabilized Economy
* Diversified Industrial Base
* Many Livable Wage Careers
* Basic Goods Locally Available
* Rural Retail & Tourism Center
* Strong Business Support System
* Resources Sustainably Tapped
* Vibrant Downtown, Social Center
* Infill with Cohesive Neighborhoods
* Highway Serves the Town
*v Sense of Place & Heritage
* Good School Facilities
These ends and the Mission Statement guided formation of the strategic framework for this plan. Note that in identifying desirable ends in each of the three dimensions noted above, there were a significant number of overlapping themes. Among them were education, downtown revitalization, careers with livable wages, and infrastructure that supports a sense of community.
B. The Strategic Framework Emphasizes Connections Between People, Places, Industries and Markets
A five-part framework was established to address the Mission and accomplish immediate priorities. These include:
1. Organize for Development: Build the team and leadership necessary to undertake all recommended actions. This need is fundamental. Until now, the Partnership lacked the staff and time necessary to undertake new programs. Professional staff will be hired by the Partnership to manage implementation of the Connection Plan. Staff will be housed at the County Courthouse. Volunteer teams of local organizations, agencies and citizens will be organized to undertake implementation of many of the actions in the Plan. The Chamber of Commerce will be a major leader in this effort.
2. Restore the Core: Undertake Downtown Revitalization: Downtown Bonners Ferry is the social, cultural, commercial and civic center of Boundary County. Its decline over the past three decades has eroded the region's sense of community and quality of life. In addition, many basic goods are no longer available locally, forcing more and more residents to travel to larger cities to do their shopping. This extremely high retail leakage takes with it many potential jobs. A significant part of the revitalization program will focus on attracting regional residents to gather and socialize. For example, a year-round farmers' market and cultural center are planned for the city center.
3. Diversify Industry & Commerce: For most of the century, Boundary County's economy was dominated by production of agricultural and forest commodities. Little value was added; few other industries existed. As the Partnership seeks to diversify local industry and commerce, it will emphasize value-added products, foreign trade, a distribution center (exploiting the town's excellent access to rail), business retention/expansion and tourism. Downtown revitalization efforts will stabilize and strengthen the community's niche as a retail center for the County and nearby Canadian residents.
4. Connect the Town: Few towns of Bonners Ferry's size have as many transportation and pedestrian weaknesses as it does. U.S. Highway 95 will be improved to enhance the substantial local flow of traffic and pedestrian safety. Sidewalks, pathways along the river, a pedestrian underpass between downtown and the Kootenai River Inn and other improvements will help connect and protect the community.
5. Improve Social and Cultural Assets. Development in Boundary County is greatly stifled by poor educational, cultural and social facilities. Through an emphasis on shared facilities, improvements will be made to schools, the fairgrounds, and public spaces. A cultural center, also targeted at tourism development, will be constructed as part of the overall downtown revitalization program.
C. New Industrial Development Will Tap Existing Assets More Strategically
Industrial recruitment efforts will focus on five sectors and one key industrial park location. The sectors include: value-added forest products; value-added agriculture; distribution, warehousing and assembly; foreign trade subzone manufacturing; alternative power generation. Development of local industry will be encouraged through the creation of a business incubator facility. All of these sectors can be well housed at the site of the current Fairgrounds west of Downtown Bonners Ferry.
Bonners Ferry has significant assets that make it well suited to serve light industry, including:
* Rail sidings serving two national lines
* Proximity to two major highways
* Available land, owned by the County
* Excellent infrastructure inside the city and along the rail lines
* High underemployment in the County
* Nearby Foreign Trade Zone
* Access to a local airport capable of serving small aircraft
* Industry-friendly regulatory environment
* Access to a variety of forest and agricultural raw materials
* Proximity to the Canadian border (within about twenty miles)
The Partnership initially focused for good reason on industrial development at the County airport. The County owns land adjacent to the airport that is appropriately zoned. With access to air transportation and proximity to two highways (U.S. 95 and S.H. 2), the location appeared to have high potential. However, research on infrastructure and alternative sites led to a decision to focus development at the Fairgrounds. Sewage treatment is not available at the airport and would be very costly to provide. Federal Aviation Administration limitations on construction and land use near the airport also would constrain development there. Future airport improvements (especially lengthening of the runway) could further limit industrial development. Finally, County property is not actually along the highway; nearby property with highway frontage is likely to be more desirable in the near term for commercial development than that at the airport. For these reasons, it is recommended that future development on County property at the airport be focused on aviation-related businesses with limited water and sewer requirements.
The Fairgrounds will be relocated to accommodate industrial development. Both the County and Fair Board support relocation for several good reasons. The current location is too small for desirable improvements. Existing facilities are outdated and dilapidated. The area is generally surrounded by conflicting industrial uses. Finally, the location is remote from most neighborhoods and other public facilities; shared use development of new buildings at the current Fairgrounds would be very limited.
Substantial volumes of freight move by truck through Boundary County daily. Many vehicles are headed to rail terminals and intermodal facilities south and west of Bonners Ferry. Creation of a distribution center and intermodal operation at Bonners Ferry could capture much of this traffic and draw more. Such a complex would be even more attractive when served by potential Foreign Trade Subzones.
With an authorized Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) in Eastport, Subzones (FTS) could be readily established for industries in Bonners Ferry. An FTS would provide manufacturers and wholesalers with substantial benefits, including:
* Delayed tariffs for all imported products/materials so long as they remain inside the FTS. The money saved from this delay while products remain in inventory can be substantial.
* Eliminated tariffs when imported products are combined with American materials and labor that exceed 50% of the final product's value.
* No tariffs for products that are held at the FTS and then re-exported.
* No tariffs for products that are found substandard or surplus and destroyed at the FTS.
* No tariffs on waste byproducts resulting from manufacturing that combines imported materials with American materials and labor.
Imported Canadian softwoods (as an example) are likely to carry substantial tariffs in the near future. If a U.S. manufacturer were to locate at a Bonners Ferry FTS, it could conceivably import this material, combine it with American material and labor, then ship it with greatly reduced or eliminated tariff cost.
A distribution center could take advantage of FTS status. For example, a company like Coldwater Creek in Sandpoint would benefit by holding its inventory in the FTS until ordered by a customer. Re-exported products would pay no tariffs.
A specialized warehouse with consolidation and break-bulk capabilities could benefit a wide variety of commerce and industry. When linked to intermodal facilities (where freight is moved from one mode of transportation to another), a distribution center at this border town becomes even more competitive.
Bonners Ferry is well suited for these forms of development due to:
* Its proximity to the Canadian border
* Tariffs on many imported products
* The presence of two national main rail lines with sidings
* Immediate access to U.S. Highway 95 and State Route 2 (to Montana)
* Existence of all basic infrastructure in an industrial park setting
* Local access to a wide range of forest and agricultural raw materials
* Status as a high priority community for federal and state development assistance
Boundary County also appears to be well suited for the creation and expansion of locally owned businesses. For example, there are many people with skills related to production of specialty wood and food products. Given the ready access to raw materials, a business incubator focused on value-added agriculture and forest products may be feasible. (The University of Idaho is convinced enough that it committed in April, 2001 to assist the City of Bonners Ferry in undertaking a feasibility study and business plan.) An incubator could be located in several places around Bonners Ferry but may be best suited for co-location at the Fairgrounds site with other industries.
Members of the Partnership also should pursue means for alternative energy generation. The City is one of only three in the state that has its own power plant (a hydroelectric generator at a nearby dam). This distinct expertise can be expanded by the Partnership to tap biomass, wind and solar energy. In fact, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho announced in March 2001, its intention to construct a biomass power generator. Biomass power generation could be enhanced through creation of hybrid poplar tree farms on fallow land throughout the county. Hybrid poplar grows between five and eight feet per year in this region. It grows so well that some tree farmers have been using the first log for lumber rather than fuel. There are many other uses for this tree and its byproducts. A cash crop like this would be valuable to power generation and a viable alternative to growing many traditional (and ailing) agricultural commodities.
Wind and solar maps indicate that there are significant areas of the county were these forms of energy could be tapped for power generation. Given the national energy crisis, and Boundary County's tradition of self-sufficiency, further research is recommended.
D. Downtown Revitalization will Emphasize Management, Mixed Use, Social Retail, Tourism, Heritage & Attractive Pedestrian Environment
Downtown Bonners Ferry is a great mix of historic buildings in a beautiful and strategic location. It has strong potential to be restored as a social, cultural, civic and commercial center. Revitalization efforts will seek to attract both locals and visitors to a Downtown that is convenient, comfortable and attractive. Basic retail goods and services will be combined with professional services and expanded housing opportunities on upper floors and around the periphery of the core.
Revitalization is not something that will happen quickly, nor will it be a temporary activity. Ongoing professional management will be needed. This professional manager will oversee revitalization, development of the cultural center, river walk and creation of the industrial park at the Fairgrounds. One of the manager's most important jobs will be creating the teams necessary to fully implement three primary revitalization programs:
Program #1, Organization and Management: Revitalization efforts will be guided by the National Main Street Center's four-point approach (Organization, Economic Restructuring, Promotion, and Design). Professional management will be supported by volunteer committees, the Chamber of Commerce and service clubs. The manager will work for the Partnership and be housed at the County Courthouse. Funding for the manager will come from a combination of grants, Partnership investment and local business contributions.
Program #2, Business Retention and Recruitment: Business retention will be a major revitalization priority. Technical assistance, expanded financial resources and cooperative promotion will be emphasized to help stabilize and grow existing businesses. Once a sound retention program is in place, strategic recruitment will begin. Recruitment and all other business development programs will be market driven.
Program #3, Physical Improvements: Enhancements to Downtown will focus on two facets of Connection: drawing highway travelers into the city center, and creating more attractive places for public gatherings and socializing. Much of the Downtown is in good physical condition, so this effort will not be complex. Most improvements will be exactly that - improvements - rather than wholesale replacements. Key projects (see Figure 1.2 on the next page) will include:
* Entryways and the front "face" of Downtown
* Pedestrian comforts (e.g., lighting, seating, crosswalks, landscaping)
* Wayfinding signage to direct pedestrians around Downtown
* Parking that is easy to find, attractive and well designed
* Gathering places organized to attract more intensive use
* Home for a year-round Farmers Market
* Cultural center
The Farmers Market will be organized to encourage local farmers and others to add value to produce and start up new businesses. The business incubator will probably contain a commercial kitchen that can support small scale food processing.
E. The Riverwalk will Connect Regional Assets While Providing a Great New Amenity
Eons of flooding along the Kootenai River were ended with the construction of dams upriver from Bonners Ferry. The City also created levies to ensure a barrier between the community and the waterway. While these actions were necessary, the barrier eliminated most means for interaction between citizens, the river and its magnificent views.
The Partnership responded to this limitation by seeking to create a Riverwalk, or greenbelt, along the river and adjacent to Downtown Bonners Ferry. The planning team then worked with residents to create a simple, attractive walkway. Among community priorities for this important new amenity are:
* Paved path to support bicycles, strollers, skates and skateboarding
* Interpretive signage along the path to describe the area's heritage, natural environment, river (including sturgeon and other native species) and community
* Exercise stations along the path
* A phased development plan that helps expand the pathway as funding and volunteer support allow
* Pedestrian connections between the Riverwalk, Downtown and Kootenai River Inn
* Simple design that emphasizes the natural setting and low construction cost
The Riverwalk will take the form of a sideways 'H,' with the bar between the arms being the U.S. 95 bridge, as shown in Figure 1.3. Citizens wanted the system to be on both sides of the river, with potential to grow lengthwise over time. By crossing the river and going under the bridge, the Riverwalk will for the first time enable people of all ages to get to the City's north-side playfields without having to cross the highway.
The first segments of the pathway will be adjacent to and through Downtown to the Kootenai River Inn. (These are segments 5, 4, 3 and 2 in the image at left.)
Heritage interpretation will be highlighted along the Riverwalk. Pioneering, agriculture, mining, timber, railroads and commerce all will be addressed. Special emphasis will be placed on the Kootenai Tribe's rich legacy of connection to the region. The pedestrian underpass at the current visitors center will be included in the Native American interpretive system, with the possibility of audio-visual materials. As visitors approach the Kootenai River Inn, interpretation will move to modern issues and themes facing the Tribe.
For reasons linked to local geography, the highway and railroads, Bonners Ferry provides few positive walking or biking environments. The Riverwalk will provide citizens and visitors alike with an outstanding pedestrian experience. Over time the trail system could be linked to South Hill via the west valley and roadway leading up to the Forest Service station at the southern end of the community. Ideally, the system will eventually link to the schools, Fairgrounds, South Hill, Downtown, North Hill, Three Mile and Wildlife Refuge.
F. A New Cultural Center Will Contribute to Both the Economy and Quality of Life
Residents and tourists alike could be served well by a cultural center. However, there has been some local debate about what such a center should include, where it should be located and how it might be funded. The planning team facilitated a series of public meetings to address these key issues. Consensus was reached quickly on the three primary roles that a potential cultural center should address. These are:
* Economic Development
* Community Service (An Asset for Residents)
* Heritage Showcase
Group discussions also led to a concise set of facilities that the center should contain. This discussion was complicated initially by inclusion of elements that are not truly consistent with a cultural center, but which are strongly desired by many residents. Central among these elements were recreational resources, especially a gymnasium and swimming pool. Participants in public meetings eventually agreed that there are two distinctly different assets being considered: 1) A cultural center focused on heritage and the arts; 2) a community center focused on recreation, continuing education and public assemblies (e.g., for festivals and events). Once the different themes were clarified, agreement was quickly reached on desirable cultural center facilities. Highest on the list are:
* Auditorium: Stage, Back Stage
* Classrooms (Including 1 Theater-Style Classroom)
* Outside Displays
* Kitchen (Service Kitchen for Catering Only, and Optional)
After reviewing similar facilities and traditional space needs, the planning team responded with a general layout scheme that would call for up to 15,800 square feet of floor area. The figure below provides a guide for how this space would be divided up in a new building.
Three locations were considered for the cultural center:
Site 1: Downtown at the north end of the Visitors Center parking lot. Here the center would create a new, highly attractive, front face for Downtown. (See Figure 1.4.) It would be easily seen by through traffic and easy to reach. Downtown also would benefit greatly from the presence of visitors to the cultural center (which could be combined with an enhanced visitor center). From an economic point of view, no other available location could be as positive. Being in Downtown would support revitalization and indirectly support historic preservation. The City already owns most of the property for the site. Parking analysis indicates that at least sixty units, more efficiently arranged, would remain in the existing parking lot. This is about the same number currently available. Parking, however, will be a challenge. Anticipating this, the planning team identified opportunities for over 200 off street parking units around Downtown that could help reduce pressures for customer and employee parking needs.
Site 2: Junior High School Gymnasium and Auditorium. This building exists and has most of the elements identified as desirable for the cultural center. The structure does not meet current building codes and is not accessible to people with physical disabilities. The relatively unattractive site, while close to Downtown, is not visible from the highway and is near the rail line (a noise problem). Retrofitting and upgrading the building will be expensive but may cost less than an entirely new facility. The building is probably eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. As such, adaptive re-use would be highly consistent with the "Heritage Showcase" priority.
Site 3: Adjacent to the High School on South Hill. The center would become part of a school/Fairgrounds complex recommended in the Connection plan. Co-location with these other public assets would support the principle of shared facilities. However, there would be much less economic benefit since the site is offset from a narrow commercial strip along South Hill.
Each site option was rated for its impact on the primary roles the center is intended to serve. Based on this multi-criteria evaluation, downtown at the current visitors center parking lot received the highest score. Consequently, at this time the Downtown site is recommended for further investigation.
G. South Hill Improvements Will Enhance Circulation, Access and Safety
South Hill has simply become too congested and dangerous along Highway 95. Pedestrian and vehicular accidents are common. Left-hand turns often involve long waits. There is no safe place for people to walk or bike. Residents in adjacent neighborhoods are forced to use their cars for even the simplest errands.
Substantial improvements to the highway along South Hill can be made within the existing right-of-way. (See Figure 1.5.) Specifically, a continuous three-lane system with a sidewalk on the east side of the highway can be supported. Combined with a regular series of protected and well-signed crosswalks, this system would contribute substantially to both circulation and safety.
Citizens at a recent public meeting overwhelmingly supported the improvements noted above over several other options for future highway development. Specific improvements endorsed for immediate development include:
* 3 Lanes (Middle Turn Lane)
* Continuous Sidewalk on One Side
* Cover Ditches Along Highway (numerous, deep, dangerous and unsightly)
* Crosswalk at High School; Median Sanctuary
* True Pedestrian Crossings at Signal(s)
* Crosswalks at Key Intersections
* Curb & Gutter; Disciplined Business Entries
Idaho Transportation Department's (ITD) District Engineer has endorsed these improvements in concept. The District will work with the City to implement appropriate changes as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the City will seek grants and other resources to help fund the various elements.
Citizens who participated in the Connection planning process also had consensus on long-term development priorities for the highway. Their views included:
* Keep Highway in Town (no bypass)
* Expand to a 5-Lane System When Necessary (acquire 14 feet of right-of-way on either side of 95)
* Make South Hill Pedestrian and Bicycle Friendly
* Create Median Sanctuaries at Crosswalks
* Install Curb and Gutter for Disciplined Business Entries
* Consider a Bike Path From the U.S. Forest Service Office to the Valley and Downtown
These recommendations have been forwarded to the Idaho Transportation Department. The City intends to work with the state agency to complete a Corridor Study to address and prioritize them.
H. The Connection Plan's Strategic System of Improvements Will Strengthen the Economy, Sense of Community and Public Safety
The Connection Plan is founded upon local values, rational economic principles and sound design. The community-based planning process led to a series of broadly endorsed recommendations that address the greatest social, economic and physical challenges facing the community today. Great effort was made to find common ground and broadly distribute the benefits of each recommended project.
Key recommendations in the Connection Plan are expected to cost between $8.8 and $9.5 million (some specific projects cannot be costed until local decisions regarding design, location, etc. are finalized). Given the scope and range of improvements, this is a remarkably small budget - one that can be funded from a wide variety of sources. A set of over sixty resources has been identified and linked to the various categories of projects. The Partnership is already pursuing many of them.
The Connection Plan emphasizes practical implementation steps to ensure success for the Partnership. Each of the issues of "Who, What, When, Where, How and Why" are addressed in this document.
After decades of decline, leaders and citizens of the Partnership have come together as a team to restore vitality to the region. The time is right for action: the right people are in the right place at the right time with a clear direction and mission. Success now depends upon three things:
* A public-private partnership, already in place and growing in its strength
* Professional leadership supported by dedicated volunteer teams: There is a commitment to filling this need.
* State and federal support for infrastructure and economic improvements: The Partnership has already begun to introduce its Connection Plan projects to appropriate agencies.