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Reordering the list


In the 1963 territorial centennial edition of the state government’s Idaho Almanac, you can find population statistics for local areas, based on the then-recent census, that might come as a surprise today.

The list of largest cities in Idaho is topped not by the perennial big city of the state (and even territory) – Boise – but rather by Pocatello, which in 1960 had 39,194 residents compared to Boise’s 34,481.

And Boise was barely hanging on to second place: Idaho Falls, in a growth mode then with the development of the national nuclear laboratory, was close behind with 33,161, and gaining on the capital city.

The exact numbers may seem a little quaint now, six decades out. And they – and cities’ rank orders – got that way partly because of several flukes. Pocatello had only recently swallowed the neighboring city of Alameda (and wasn’t far from doing the same to Chubbuck), while Boise had been holding off for some years annexing nearby unincorporated areas that were rapidly urbanizing, especially on the south side of town. Soon after (and maybe prompted by some light embarrassment at losing the state’s pole position to Pocatello), Boise did annex new areas, and gained the most-populous label it hasn’t come close to relinquishing since.

Pocatello, on the other hand, now ranks sixth in population among Idaho cities.

It’s been quite a drop in rank order, and relatively recent. When I lived in Pocatello in the 70s and 80s it was firmly ensconced as the state’s second city, albeit well behind Boise by then. Since then it hasn’t declined; the Gate City’s population has continued to grow, and it did in the last decade. It just didn’t grow by nearly as much as some of the other cities.

If that sounds like a sad story for Pocatello, don’t be so sure. Some of the advocates for boom growth may fall into the category of being careful what you wish for.

The molten hot engine of population growth in Idaho is the city of Meridian, which in 1960 had just crossed the threshold of 2,000 people. (I remember it most clearly, from my early visits there in the 70s, when it still was about that size, and just a tiny country farm town.) Now, 60 years later, it is more than 50 times as large, a close match for, say, Scottsdale, Arizona, featuring the most stunning local growth trajectory in Idaho.

Such growth was not opposed by people locally, at least in general; population and economic growth long have been considered an overwhelming good in those parts. Some of those effects clearly are good, and much of the city has a prosperous feel, but Meridian still is a mixed bag. Its crowding (not only in traffic but in residential locales too) has become uncomfortable for some people. Its taxes are rising, ironic for an area that long has been anti-tax, but inevitable for a place needing new schools and police and fire stations, added infrastructure, and much more. Fast-growth cities are expensive places for home prices, government costs and other needs.

Next door in Caldwell – the city that grew so fast it bumped Pocatello from fifth to sixth – the pressures have become visible and public. In some parts of town, city officials are trying to draw a slowdown or maybe halt on residential development, in large part because there’s not enough room or capacity for commercial and service growth to serve all those new residents. Caldwell, another of Idaho’s hot growth spots, has a proverbial tiger by its tail.

Growth trajectories often have unpredictable lines. Where will the growth come from – and where might it avoid – in the next six decades? No telling.

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