The Transformation of Downtown Idaho Falls
By Carrie Getty Scheid
Forty-two art benches grace downtown Idaho Falls and the Snake River greenbelt. Each one has a story. But how they got there is the story I want to tell.
Downtown Idaho Falls has been called a lot of things. The old timers once referred to it as “Alcohol Falls.” My husband Jerry, a retired sheep and cattle rancher, fondly remembers driving sheepherders and camp-tenders into downtown from his family ranch right after they collected their six months’ of winter and trail wages. It was the early 1950s. The first stops were always the Bon Villa and Jack’s Club, two notorious bars sometimes called “blind pigs” by the locals. Recognizing the windfall delivered to their establishments, the bartenders would allow Jerry, the underaged teen chauffer, to belly up to the bar for free while the hired hands bought rounds for the house.
During the ‘60s, the downtown’s hurly burly persona began to fade. The department stores and movie theaters fled to suburban shopping centers and malls, which offered bigger buildings, bigger parking lots, and bigger crowds. The exodus continued when more downtown professional firms and restaurants moved to the east side of town, where the new shopping centers, malls and hospital were now located. In the early ‘90s, downtown Idaho Falls had about hit bottom—too many vacant storefronts and too few shoppers. As local developer Larry Reinhart told me back then, “I am tired of Idaho Falls being called Jackson Hole’s ugly stepsister.”
Even so, most city and county municipal offices remained downtown, as did some forward-thinking law firms that had renovated and brought life back to their historic buildings. Cheap building prices and rents began attracting nonprofit arts groups, which are always looking for bargains. And then there was the gorgeous Snake River. It ran right alongside downtown. Years earlier, the city had the good sense to create a greenbelt walking area along both sides of the river. On the east side sits the downtown commercial district; along the west bank is “hotel row,” made up of ten motels serving thousands of Yellowstone Park visitors during the summer. But the visitors usually ignored the downtown. The challenge was figuring a way to entice them across the river.