The Idaho Boom


Idaho has recently been the fastest growing state in the country, with population growth of 2.1% last year. Of course it is easy to get high percentages on a small base, but the Idaho growth story is real. From 2018 to 2019, the most recent available data, Coeur d’Alene ranked 7th among all metro areas in population growth, Boise ranked 8th, and Idaho Falls ranked 18th.

I’ve been to Idaho in the past but recently visited Boise for the first time, and also stopped in Spokane, WA and Moscow, ID.

Boise has carved out a reputation as a hot destination, and statistically it is. A large number of people from California are moving there. This includes not just middle class people, but those bringing seven and eight figures in financial assets with them.

However, I did not find Boise an impressive city. It’s a fairly generic sprawlburg whose built environment is almost entirely post-war. The city of Boise only had about 34,500 in 1960. In other words, it was basically a small town. So the historic areas of the city are pretty small geographically, and reputedly very expensive. (Today the city is 229,000 and the metro area 750,000).

There are mountains close by, but the area is not especially scenic, especially in contrast to northern Idaho. I was there at a bad time of year, but it’s very obvious that the region has few trees, for example, whereas some other areas in Idaho and Montana are heavily forested and gorgeous. Boise also does get cold in the winter and hot in the summer. According to Wikipedia, it gets to 100 degrees eight times on average, and has 51 days over 90 degrees. The area is quite arid, however.

What’s interesting about the Idaho boom is that that the character of the cities and who is moving there is quite different. I’ve never been to Idaho Falls, but the city is supposedly heavily Mormon. (Idaho has a lot of Mormons in general).

The Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area is drawing large number of very conservative Catholics. In addition to a fairly conservative diocese in Spokane, the area has drawn a number of people who are part of the FSSP and SSPX movements. Northern Idaho is also well known as a haven for the hard right.

I have not visited Coeur d’Alene but did get to check out Spokane. As a Midwesterner, Spokane was much more resonant with me than Boise. For one thing, it was a more substantial city than Boise historically, with 181,600 residents in 1960. Today the two are about the same size, but Spokane has a much more impressive historic fabric, as well as interesting geography within the city. It also has its share of decay, however, and a visible downtown homeless population.

The Pullman, WA-Moscow, ID area is very unique place. These two small towns are about ten minutes apart, and each is home to a major university, Washington State and the University of Idaho respectively. The feel is very different from Midwestern college towns. In the Midwest, you have state flagship schools that are very large, wealthy, and at least semi-prestigious. Then you have directional schools and liberal arts college. The University of Idaho is the state’s flagship, but is relatively small and not prestigious. This keeps it from overwhelming the town. In essence, Moscow feels like a real small town but with a population that’s educated. (Pullman is similar but the school is bigger). Moscow is the proverbial blue dot in a red state, though does have a significant sized conservative Evangelical population as well.

Why is Idaho booming? My gut feel is that it is related to the paucity of cities in the inland West. In contrast to the Eastern US, which has a huge number of cities, the West is much more sparsely populated. As the prices go up in places like Denver or wherever, pretty much anyplace with an airport is going to become a destination.

Idaho is also experiencing in migration of political and religious conservatives. I won’t hazard a guess at what the conservative-liberal split is. However, it’s very clear that far more of the migrants to Idaho are conservative than those to, say, Colorado. So while migration has often turned red states purple or blue, this may not be the case in Idaho. It will be interesting to watch how it turns out.

What lessons are there for the Heartland to draw from Idaho? I’m not sure there’s an Idaho strategy that can be replicated. However, some Idaho cities are quite comfortable with creating a draw based on political conservatism and/or religious groups like the Mormons and traditional Catholics. This is not true in the Heartland. The red state and more conservative areas of the Heartland might consider thinking about whether they could potentially target this market, rather than the hipster progressive types they all seem to want but which they are poorly positioned to attract.

Related: The New York Times found that the pandemic did not materially change migration patterns in the US, with some exceptions such as an exodus from New York City and San Francisco.

This piece was first published at Heartland Intelligence and is reprinted here with the author's permission.

Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker and writer on a mission to help America’s cities and people thrive and find real success in the 21st century. He focuses on urban, economic development and infrastructure policy in the greater American Midwest. He also regularly contributes to and is cited by national and global media outlets, and his work has appeared in many publications, including the The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Photo credit: Robby Milo via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.


Although the forested mountains are not far north of Boise (with bigger ones 2 hours' drive to the east), the Treasure Valley-Magic Valley stretch to the south is high desert and even vesicular. The upside of the warming temperatures for Idaho as a whole is that it makes the state more livable to many year-around.