If you could pick one public project that would benefit downtown Twin Falls, what would it be?
How about an amphitheater in nearby Rock Creek Canyon? Or a trendy boutique hotel or bed-and-breakfast? A new grocery store? A history park at the silos?
Those are all good ideas pitched last week at a public meeting hosted by the city’s Urban Renewal Agency as it seeks to identify its next project. Coming off the heels of the roughly $6 million remake of Main Avenue, the quasi-government agency is looking to the future.
The group controls funding for public projects with money raised from special taxing districts. In Twin Falls, they’re called “revenue allocation areas.” In other states, they’re sometimes called tax-increment finance districts or other names, but the principle is basically the same: The URA collects taxes from property in the districts based on how much those property values have increased, and then reinvests the money back into the districts through other projects. In theory, the reinvestments boost the total taxable value, and voile, urban renewal occurs.
In Twin Falls, one such district that encompasses much of downtown and the surrounding area is set to sunset in 2022, meaning the URA doesn’t have much time to complete another project. It’s asking the public for proposals on what to do with the time and money left for the downtown district.
We hope the URA swings for the fences and goes after one more big project instead of a scattershot of smaller ones. And the biggest need downtown — heck, anywhere in Twin Falls, really — is more non-traditional housing.
While some of the smaller projects suggested might boost the neighborhood’s property values a tad, creating a park at the silos or building an amphitheater aren’t going to have the same economic-development impact. And we’d prefer plans for a grocery store or downtown hotel to occur in the private sector.
Housing, though, seems like a fitting project for the URA, especially if it caters to the rising millennial population in Twin Falls and the empty-nesters who want to live close to restaurants and shopping but don’t want to deal with the upkeep of a home and yard. Create the housing, and the grocery stores and retailers will follow.
Economic development experts locally and, well, pretty much everywhere these days, say housing is key to creating vibrant downtowns. Shops and restaurants benefit when customers live right upstairs or around the corner.
“Mixed-use development” — combining commercial spaces with living spaces — are buzzwords in economic development circles, so much so that even the Magic Valley Mall is considering projects that would bring housing onto mall-owned property. The URA seems to be thinking the same way. It recently bought the Idaho Youth Ranch building across from the new City Hall, and is seeking proposals from developers with an eye toward projects that combine housing and commercial spaces.
Now is the time to pour gas on the fire, while the embers are still glowing. Downtown Twin Falls has been drastically transformed over the past 10 years, thanks in large part to the moxie of small-business owners and restaurateurs. The URA could piggy-back on that success — and continue to drive the downtown renaissance — by helping fulfill the potential of a truly vibrant downtown, a place where people work, play and shop. And maybe soon, live.