Let’s take a quick trip back in time! It’s Caldwell, Idaho in December of 2001, your DeLorean is a mess so you pull into the car wash downtown. All is well until the car in front of you tips down into a huge hole in the floor and drops into Indian Creek! Covered up through most of downtown since the 1940s, sixty years of dampness has started to take its toll. Suffering from years of urban flight and retail escape to the malls, Caldwell itself was almost as rundown as the car wash floor. Jump back to today, take a look around that same place and it is hard to believe the changes. How did this all happen?
The simple answer is people. Seeing the car wash collapse as an opportunity and a warning, the Caldwell Urban Renewal Agency started planning right away to bring the creek back into the light and by doing so “prime the pump” for the revitalization, rehabilitation and re-population of Downtown Caldwell. Regular citizens, business owners, the Chamber of Commerce and the Caldwell Economic Development Council all jumped on board, made plans, dealt with Federal regulators, building owners, flood plain maps, utility issues and a myriad of other challenges. Challenges were met and opportunities presented themselves.
Those cool truss framed bridges that span the creek at 6th and 7th avenues are the actual roof trusses from the Idaho Youth Ranch building that used to cover the creek at 10th and Kimball. Wade Lambert, the contractor was practicing the “reduce, Reuse Recycle” method of reconstruction well before it was trendy.
The City spent over $7 million dollars daylighting the creek and building out this amazing park. While it really made Caldwell a cleaner and safer space there wasn’t yet a plan in place to “monetize” the infrastructure investment they had made. Right about then the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce and CEDC teamed up to bring in a guy named Roger Brooks to town for a 3 day evaluation and seminar. Roger and his team at Destination Development Association, had helped thousands of towns become destinations, both for visitors and locals alike. His resume includes work with places like Whistler BC, Rapid City South Dakota and other towns like Caldwell.
Part of his process was to conduct a community assessment survey that really shed some light on why just having a nice creek side park wasn’t bringing in any new business’s. The general results showed that even the residents of Caldwell were still hesitant to spend money in their own town. If family came to town from out of state, they would take them to Boise or the new Marketplace in Meridian. Locally earned money was being spent elsewhere. This “leakage” of dollars was killing our local community - or at least not letting it grow. The needed a reason to shop local.
As Roger presented what he had found out about Caldwell, he actually rejoiced in the steps that had been taken. Then he started to lay out a plan to make Caldwell a destination for people not just that live here, but from the entire Treasure Valley. The right spaces, and mixes of business’s tied together with a cohesive design theme and a new organization dedicated to planning and programming at least 250 events a year were all pieces of the puzzle that had to fall into place to make his concept successful. He had seen this work all over the world and he was sure we could do it here even as we embraced our areas agricultural roots and still planned for our future. In 2103 Destination Caldwell was formed by a grassroots group of civic leaders, residents and farmers to help put a plan into action. Again it was the people not the government that was coming together to make things happen.
But where to build a community gathering place we could all enjoy and how to pay for it were still important questions to answer. The “where” came about when the old Kings Department Store building was acquired by Caldwell Economic Development and donated back to the City. The City council thought this was all great but they insisted that there be a funding mechanism in place to ensure the operation could pay for itself and not become a citywide burden. “No sense building a fantastic machine if you can’t pay to keep it running” was their thought. So the people that owned property in downtown formed a Business Improvement District and agreed to asses an annual fee on themselves to make sure this project was sustainable even before a brick was laid.
With that commitment from the community, cooperation from the city and an amazing design concept from GGLO Urban Design that included the first Ice Skating Ribbon in the Northwest, what you see around Indian Creek Plaza today started to take shape. Part of the design plan was to preserve the great old buildings that were already around the Plaza, The old banks that now house Rediscovered Books and the high end Amano Mexican restaurant are prime examples. Look at White Dog Brewing, The Stil and the Chop Shop for great warehouse remodels as well as the carefully reclaimed spaces that Moxie Java and Grit 2C have made home and you can appreciate the past while noshing in the present.
Unlike the majority of urban re-design plans, the Roger Brooks branding and action plans did not end up on a shelf someplace but are still in use today. The City, Destination Caldwell and the Sunnyslope Wine Trail are all working together to position this as the premier gathering place in the entire valley. None of it would have happened without all the driven dreamers that were involved along the way. They said “why not” instead of why and made something absolutely amazing happen. A western themed steakhouse / honky tonk in downtown? Why Not Indian Creek Steak House! A first run luxury movie theatre? Why Not Reel Theatres! A candle store, a gourmet marshmallow shop, a wine bar, a new pizza place or a coffee shop that sells high end leather goods….Why not, Lit & Co., Creekside Mallow Market, 2C Wine Down, Extreme Pizza and Bond & Bevel!! Why not indeed.
Next time you are out on the Indian Creek Plaza, look at all the donors immortalized in the bricks beneath your feet. Think about the amount of personal energy poured into this space. It’s amazing where we’ve come in just over 30 years. With 142 units of housing and ground floor retail/dining space being built in downtown Caldwell right now, just imagine where we will be in another 30 years. I don’t think my time machine will get it right because with a great group of grassroots citizens, who knows what will happen. So if you want to see what can happen, come to Caldwell, the Treasure of the Valley. If you want to change where you live for the better, get involved in your community. For sure 30 years ago, nobody saw this coming!
The Wandering Ambassador
©️Jim Thomssen LLC 2022