While it didn't get a whole lot of fanfare, a small but dedicated group of individuals met last week as part of what I expect will be a long-term process to revitalize the city's downtown area. The issue deals with the amount of vacant properties in our community, which is probably the highest it's been in the city's history.
When my family and I moved to Mountain Home nine years ago, local "mom and pop" shops were booming. People were seen going from store to store looking for trinkets and treasures or a quick bite to eat.
I still remember once a month when the Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce held its Arts After Five program, which encouraged people to walk through the downtown area and to see what was available. It also gave our local artists a chance to showcase their work, which helped highlight the tremendous talent we have here.
Then the recession hit in 2008, which took a huge bite out of those businesses, and many of those stores have changed hands at least once or twice over the past few years. Many others have remained closed.
Seeing all of those empty places really saddens me, because I've seen photos of the city's downtown area when it was absolutely booming. Back then, real estate was at a premium, and it was easy doing business here, regardless of what you were selling.
The meeting hosted by the city's economic development office was hoping to return Mountain Home to some of its past glory -- to see people once again going into those shops and stores. At the same time, it sought to bring some relief to the real estate agents and property owners who are still having to pay the utility costs and insurance, even though no one is inside these places.
A lot of the concerns raised at the meeting really didn't come as a big surprise. Parking in Mountain Home, especially in the downtown area, needs improvement.
Make that a lot of improvement.
Then there's the issue of "big box" retailers here and in the Treasure Valley, which are squeezing out the smaller shops that try to directly compete with them. While it's nearly impossible to match them dollar for dollar on what they sell, the trick is to sell something these mega stores don't carry combined with prompt, courteous customer service that encourages people to return to shop there again.
And of course there's the local Air Force base and the thousands of airmen stationed there. They represent the "wildcard" in the city's economic situation.
Years ago, most airmen here lived on base or in the local area. They did most, if not all, of their shopping in Mountain Home itself.
It's a vastly different story today. An overwhelming number of these airmen and their families are now living in Boise and spending most of their money there. The airmen are willing to commute to and from Boise every day while their spouses work in the Treasure Valley and their children attend schools there.
It's tough to get these military families to shop here because. From their perspective, it all comes down to five words: There's nothing to do here.
However, how much more would they have available to them here if they decided to occasionally stop in Mountain Home and see what's available? Those few extra dollars in the coffers of these businesses might be what it takes to kickstart the local economy once again.
Perhaps these families would see the value of living significantly closer to where our airmen have to work every day. It sure beats having to drive 90 miles round trip every day, especially during the winter when the interstate gets extremely nasty.
Having more of these families living here would have a ripple effect across the community. The extra tax dollars generated would not only help our city but our schools as well, which in recent years have drawn their fair share of scorn from our military neighbors.
Last week's meeting did offer quite a few ideas that I believe have merit. The suggestion of finding a "winter home" for the Mountain Home Farmers' Market was an excellent idea and one that I hope gains some traction.
When I was growing up in northeastern Ohio, our community had a fairly large community flea market that would open just a couple times a week. Over the years, its growing popularity led to the construction of a massive indoor and outdoor venue that's now home to dozens of shops and stores inside with local farmers and merchants renting areas in the outdoor pavilion.
It would be nice if our local market would grow big enough to merit a similar expansion here.
One idea raised at the meeting looked at taking one entire city block and turning it into one massive indoor shopping mall. The idea is based on ones I've seen in Spokane and Indianapolis.
While Mountain Home is too small for something that big, perhaps we could do it on a much smaller scale. After all, it wouldn't take much to take some of the empty store fronts, knock out a few walls to tie them together or interconnect them by hallways. That would really come in handy during the winter.
Those empty properties could then become home to what is known as an "incubator" -- a collection of small start-up businesses that are too small to have their own individual stores but offer a lot of variety.
Mountain Home is already home to one of these incubator-type of businesses. If the concept does well, perhaps we can do it on a slightly larger scale and go from there.
Following all of the dialog at Thursday's meeting, it's clear that people have plenty of ideas on how to get our local economy running a whole lot smoother. It'll just take time and the willingness of the stakeholders in our community to make it work.
-- Brian S. Orban