Booming Boise: Idaho city is growing at a feverish pace

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Right now, the Idaho economy and particularly southwest Idaho look “hot.” The Census Bureau reports the 2018 Idaho population at 1,753,860. That’s peanuts compared to 39,776,830 in California and barely 0.5 percent of the nation’s population.

But in 2018, Idaho grew 2.15 percent, faster than any other state. For those looking for opportunities in growth, Idaho looks like a possibility. In 2017, Idaho population increased by 37,000. By national standards that is not very much. But over half of that increase occurred in seven counties in the southwestern part of the state.

{mosads}While the entire state appears to be growing, growth appears to be concentrated in the southwest; in the few counties around Boise, i.e., the Treasure Valley.


For March 2018, the national unemployment rate was 4.1 percent. Idaho tied for the eighth-lowest state at 2.9 percent. Employment in Idaho and Utah grew 3.3 percent, fastest of all states.

In the counties comprising the Treasure Valley, the unemployment rate declined from 3.6 percent in February of 2017 to 2.9 percent in February 2018. In the same period of time, the statewide unemployment rate decreased from 3.5 percent to 3.0 percent.

The housing market, particularly in southwest Idaho, is particularly tight. For all practical purposes, the inventory of unsold existing single-family residences is zero, and the unsold inventory of new homes is half of what it was at the height of the housing crisis.

It is not uncommon for an existing home to sell at the asking price, for cash, in less than a week of going on the market. In 2017 in Ada County, i.e. Boise, the median price of existing homes rose 22 percent. The price of a newly constructed home rose 6 percent.

The relation between the national and the Idaho economies can explain some of this pattern of growth in both the state and in the Treasure Valley. For some reason, recession impacts Idaho more severely than the nation, and recovery occurs much faster.

When the Great Recession hit, the unemployment rate in Idaho went from 4.0 percent to 10.1 percent. No other state experienced such an increase. Since then, the Idaho unemployment rate has dropped 7.2 percentage points to 2.9 percent, while the national unemployment rate has dropped 6 percentage points, from 10 percent to 4 percent.

Some of this can be explained by the smallness of the Idaho economy compared to the nation. The loss of 80,000 jobs in Idaho would be a 10-percent decline. For the nation is would be a 0.05-percent loss.

It might also be that states like Idaho have the marginal facilities. They are the first to reduce operations when recession hits, and they experience the biggest percentage increases in recovery.

Aside from the current and cyclical events, it must be emphasized that the Idaho and the Treasure Valley are not what your grandparents remember.

Writing in the 1930s, John Dos Passos repeated the joke: “Idaho is the only state with two state capitols, Spokane, Washington and Salt Lake City, Utah.” Those were the days of two-lane roads and little or no airline traffic.

The communities in northern and eastern Idaho were 250-300 miles away, making Boise a fairly inaccessible state capitol. In the north, commercial interests were most easily served by Spokane, and in the east, Salt Lake was larger and more convenient than Boise.

The business community in Boise served the area of southwest Idaho, some of southeast Oregon and some of northern Nevada. It wasn’t much of a market.

Things have changed. Between 1940 and 2017, the state’s population has grown from 525,000 to 1,700,000. The population of the Treasure Valley is close to 670,000, which is 43 percent of the entire state, compared to a population of 125,000 and 25 percent 70 years ago.

Sometime in the mid-20th century, the local economy began an evolution away from serving the local farming community to one supplying national and world markets.

Some of the company names are familiar, others you won’t recognize, but firms maintaining a large presence in the Treasure Valley include (or included) Boise-Cascade, Albertsons, Winco, J.R. Simplot, Micron, Scentsy, Amalgamated Sugar, Lamb-Weston, MWI, Hewlett-Packard, Morrison Knudsen, Ore-Ida Foods and Weyerhaeuser.

Throughout the state, the largest single employer is state government, and the federal government maintains large staffs, including the U.S. Forest Service, BLM, Bureau of Reclamation, the FBI in Pocatello and others.

There is the Idaho National Lab headquartered in Idaho Falls as well as Melaleuca. Chobani has a very large yogurt plant in Twin Falls. Potlatch has a large facility in Lewiston.

In the traditional sectors, the state is becoming less resource based. Idaho still produces the largest fall potato crop and produces more frozen potato products than any other state. Idaho is the third-largest milk producer behind California and Wisconsin.

Regardless of the importance of agriculture, the resource base of Idaho is being used more for recreation, i.e., boating, fishing, skiing, etc.

Don Holley is professor emeritus in economics at Boise State University. 

Tags Boise metropolitan area economic expansion Geography of the United States Housing market Idaho population boom Southwestern Idaho United States

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