From behind the wheel of her convertible, Anna Peterson points to a cluster of neat and tidy houses surrounded by sagebrush scrubs. “These are all new homes,” she says.
She drives seven miles northeast of Caldwell, Idaho, to Middleton, the small town where she grew up and where her parents are buried.
“This school is brand new,” she says, pointing to a hulking two-story building sitting in the middle of a 60-acre site alongside a softball diamond, a baseball field, a 4,000-seat football stadium and five parking lots with capacity for more than a thousand cars. Peterson, 71, drives away and more modern-looking houses appear on the horizon.
This refrain is echoing all across the Caldwell area, which is situated 28 miles west of Boise, Idaho’s state capital. A city of slightly more than 10,000 people when Peterson was born in 1950, Caldwell has since crossed the 60,000 threshold and is projected to reach more than 100,000 residents by 2035. The gravel roads she drove on as a young adult have long been covered in concrete and are now roamed by cars with California plates. School districts compete with real estate developers for land. Dozens of acres of open fields are being lost to new developments each year.
What’s taken place in Caldwell in many ways reflects broader trends reshaping the region. Western small cities and towns with fewer than 5,000 people saw a 13.3% increase in population between 2010 and 2020, the largest growth nationally among small towns, according to data released this year from the U.S. Census Bureau.
One of the key takeaways from the new census data: Towns across the West are also becoming increasingly diverse. In Idaho, the percentage of white people shrank from 89.1% to 82.1% of the state population, while Idahoans identifying as being two or more races more than tripled to 8.3%, according to the 2020 census.
Now, many in Caldwell worry that the small-town closeness that for so long defined their way of life could be lost. Peterson mentions predictions shared among locals that the Boise area might one day look like the Los Angeles corridor — a sprawl of interconnected suburbs.
“If people keep moving in like they are, this is a possibility,” she says. Skyrocketing housing prices are also a concern, and so is increasingly scarce water in a drier West.
“Are we willing to grow up this fast?” says Jan Roeser, a labor economist at the Idaho Department of Labor. “And do we really want to keep up?”
Caldwell started as a farming community, tucked between the Owyhee and Boise mountain ranges. Confederates fleeing the Union Army during the Civil War settled in the area, digging riverside canals and planting crops along the Boise River. Robert E. Strahorn, a railroad builder, selected the site for a portion of a route connecting Wyoming to Oregon, and it soon became the county seat of Canyon County.
This is the world Anna Peterson grew up in. Her parents married in 1949, and her father cleared sagebrush on the outskirts of town to build a house, a barn and a well and start a dairy farm. From five cows, it expanded to about 100, which Anna and her two sisters took turns milking and feeding before getting on the school bus. It was hard labor but it wasn’t devoid of small joys.
Caldwell and the surrounding area were overwhelmingly white then. When Peterson finished high school in Middleton in 1969, all but a few of the 65 students in her class were white, she says. After graduating, she moved off the farm to Caldwell and got married.
Around this time, the city started experiencing a slow but steady decline. Karcher Mall, a shopping center that opened in 1965 in neighboring Nampa, drew JCPenney and Nafziger’s Men’s Store away from downtown. The city hollowed out and violence moved in. In one period of time in 1991, shootings were reported almost every week.
In the summer of 1998, Garret Nancolas, then freshly elected mayor, set up a folding chair and table in the back of his financial adviser’s van and readied for a tour of town to document its troubles.
Sweat dripped off his nose and splashed on the city map rolled out on the table in front of him. As they toured Caldwell, he peered out the side windows and scribbled down notes on the map, marking rundown buildings, streets without sidewalks and empty storefronts.
“Caldwell went through a period of time — almost 30 years — of what I consider to be disinvestment,” Nancolas reflects more than two decades later, now well into his sixth term.
Nancolas and the City Council used a small percentage of property taxes to modernize Caldwell’s sewer system, repair roads, create parks and renovate vacant properties to attract new businesses. This sprucing up culminated in 2018 with the inauguration of Indian Creek Plaza, a new pedestrian square downtown. Named after the stream that runs beside it, the park is now lined with trendy coffee shops and restaurants, and hosts music concerts.
But development extended well beyond downtown’s borders. Caldwell brought water, sewers and electricity to two industrial parks it carved from pastureland. Combined with tax incentives from the county and the state, these efforts persuaded the owners of food processing plants, metal manufacturers and wholesale grocers to break ground, soon covering nearly one million square feet.
Word started getting around that Caldwell was a good place to live.
Sometime in 2018, Mario Lopez and his wife, Erika, sat in front of a computer and Googled, “best places to live to raise a family.”
Mario, then 40, had reached a breaking point. His daily routine had him getting up around 3 a.m. to beat traffic from Riverside, California, where they lived, to Los Angeles, where he did carpentry work. An hourlong drive on the best days, it more often than not turned into a two-hour bumper-to-bumper grind. After he made the drive back, he showered, ate dinner and went to sleep, getting ready to do it again the next day.
“I did that for like, probably about 15 years,” he says. “I was like, ‘OK, this is getting old.’”
The city of Meridian, in Boise’s suburbs, kept popping up as No. 1 and No. 2 in various rankings. But when they looked up home listings, the Lopezes found that Caldwell came up as a cheaper alternative, and a trip to the area won them over.
“I guess this is not bad, it’s up-and-coming,” Mario says the couple thought at the time.
In 2018 they sold their house in California and bought one for $229,000. That June, they packed up their two cars and a U-Haul and set out on the 13-hour drive to Idaho.
They are part of a wave of Californians flocking to Idaho. On Facebook groups such as “Moving to Idaho from Southern California,” users inquire about good restaurants and post listings. In 2019, more than half of the net 4,195 taxpayers gained by Canyon County hailed from California, according to the most recent data from the Internal Revenue Service.
Erika fell in love with the place, but it took Mario longer to adjust. He switched careers to become a real estate agent and, while waiting for his Idaho real estate license, took a job as a foreman at a construction company.
When he shared on a job site that he was from California, someone joked that Mario had two strikes against him. The first one was for being Hispanic. “It was frustrating me to the point where I said, ‘You know what, I’m done with this job,’” he says.
After getting the license, he focused on his new job and less on what troubled him. Mario prowled the city in his black Mazda SUV, hopping from one listing to another. The market was turning red-hot, a trend amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which sent throngs West now that working remotely was an option. Homes would receive offers within hours. “You go in there, and there are literally about 20, 30 offers already on the house.”
His own home appreciated in value, reaching $370,000 in under two years. So, the Lopezes sold it and recently moved into a larger home they bought for about $400,000. (In July, the median home price in Canyon County was $400,000, up from $95,000 in 2010, according to Intermountain Multiple Listing Service, a real estate company.) The city was changing around him.
The Caldwell Luxe Reel Theatre, an 11-screen movie theater, opened the month his family arrived in town. He became a regular at Amano, an upscale Mexican restaurant that opened a year later. In the wintertime, the Lopezes put on skates and glide across a ribbon-shaped ice rink set up at Indian Creek Plaza.
More importantly, Mario has found a more balanced life, with less work and more family time. Now, whenever he visits family in California, he’s reminded of his past and thinks, “I can’t wait to get back to Idaho,” he says.
The growth of the Hispanic community presents business opportunities but also unique challenges. The Caldwell School District, where 60.5% of the 5,682 students are Hispanic, only has about 20 bilingual teachers on staff, according to Shalene French, the district’s superintendent.
The Vallivue School District, which covers parts of Caldwell, can’t seem to build schools fast enough to accommodate new students, says Joey Palmer, the district’s director of federal and state programs. That is in part because it’s hard to find land to build new schools; developers have already snatched it up for new subdivisions. And a growing concern is that homeowners are recalcitrant to vote in favor of school bonds, which fund new buildings through tax hikes.
Palmer and I take a tour of Summitvue Middle School, a cavernous two-story building nestled between an industrial park and new housing developments on the outskirts of town. It opened to 746 students for the first time days before our visit but isn’t completed yet — the lobby still smells of fresh concrete.
A ballot to pass the $65.3 million bond that paid for the building passed by only one vote, but not before a recount, says Palmer, a slender man with slicked-back auburn hair.
“I went from begging for votes and, you know, the whole drama of recounting the votes, to the first day of school, helping kids understand how to open the locker,” he says, his steps echoing in the empty hallways. “It’s just kind of neat how life works out that way.”
Yet, so much remains out of the district’s purview. Because of roadwork needed to accommodate a growing number of cars, school buses often fail to make it to school before the bell rings. For a time, some schools were so packed that lunch hour stretched beyond an hour, eating into class time.
“Unfortunately there’s no win-win situation in this scenario of growth,” Palmer says.
There is a nuclear option available, however, and that is to stop all new developments. This year, Caldwell and Melba enacted moratoriums on residential development after the state Legislature capped annual property tax increases municipalities can implement at 8%. In Caldwell this has given the city enough time to figure out if new developments will pay for themselves.
But Caldwell might one day have no choice but to impose a new moratorium, Mayor Nancolas says, this time to preserve its water supply. The aquifer Caldwell relies on is abundant, but low rivers and reservoirs mean that it’s not being recharged, he says. And in July, the city’s water system came perilously close to failing to meet demand from its expanding population due to record heat.
“If those trends continue, you can’t have growth,” Nancolas says.
Back in the convertible, Peterson offers to take me to one of her favorite restaurants among locals. She’s benefited from the development craze — she sold the family farm and its 126 acres for about $1.6 million last year, more than five times what it’d been appraised for. The value of her house has doubled, and the Airbnb she runs keeps bringing new guests scouting for houses or closing deals. But “money isn’t everything,” she says.
She walks briskly to the entrance door of Mr. V’s Family Restaurant, a plain, low building with a red roof, and makes her way to a booth in the back. A hostess wearing a cowboy hat and golden hoop earrings soon comes to our table.
“Do you know when this place opened?” Peterson asks. The young woman briefly hesitates. “1974,” she says finally. “It’s one of the oldest diners.”
Peterson seems disappointed. “I guess it’s not that old.”