CALDWELL, Idaho — Caldwell is experiencing a renaissance of sorts that's beginning to attract people from across the Treasure Valley to enjoy the sudden boom of shops and restaurants. But how did a city that was once known for crime become the next rising star of the valley?
It was only a few years ago when downtown Caldwell was referred to as a "ghost town," as businesses were bare and rare to find. The city's downtown is booming so much that Destination Caldwell, which is a nonprofit that now oversees Indian Creek Plaza and promotes Caldwell in Canyon County, told KTVB that more than 50 percent of the visitors coming here are from Ada, Owyhee counties and beyond.
This sudden turnaround is attributed to the revitalization of Indian Creek Plaza.
"It's exceeded far beyond our wildest expectations," said Scott Gipson, whose family has lived in Caldwell for more than 100 years.
He's seen the community transform right before his eyes.
"Every weekend there are families and hundreds of people walking around downtown Caldwell whereas before there were, you'd be lucky if you ran into 10 or 12 people walking around downtown Caldwell," he explained.
CEO of Destination Caldwell Keri Smith recalled what downtown Caldwell looked like before the city's revitalization, saying that powerline and telephone services and cables drooped down into the city's alleys, and few businesses were open where Indian Creek Plaza now stands.
"This entire Indian Creek Plaza had King's Variety Store on this Kimbal side and then the other side was a parking lot," Smith explained. "There weren't many food options, there wasn't any entertainment at all in downtown Caldwell."
Vacant buildings and empty parking lots soon became a thing of the past when Indian Creek Plaza opened to the public in July of 2018.
"Now you see people downtown getting lunch, you see them come down at evenings for entertainment," Smith said, "And not only do we have the movie theater, we have ax throwing, and ice skating in the winter, splash pads in the summer, concerts, festivals, you name it and we try and do it."
In 2019 alone, Destination Caldwell estimates that 330,000 people attended events at Indian Creek Plaza, which is up more than 100,000 from 2018 estimates.
That attendance of the city's marquee attraction is translating to big business for stores, shops, and restaurants that also call downtown Caldwell home.
"We have an extremely diverse clientele, a lot of people from Caldwell, Nampa, and the surrounding areas," the owner of Caldwell Grit, Paul Faucher, said. "A lot of our customer base comes from Boise and Meridian and then when it's holiday season and the lights are up, it's just people from everywhere."
Dillon Wickel, the owner of Indian Creek Steakhouse, also attributes his business' growth to the development of Indian Creek Plaza. He opened his doors five years before the plaza open but since then he has expanded his restaurant over the years to meet demand.
"I remember when I first opened, there was a couple of nights when we sat here for no one, but over the years it's gotten better and better," he said. "We seated 90 people, I think we seat 900 now."
But how did Caldwell transform itself into one of the hottest places to go in the Treasure Valley? Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas said it's been years in the making.
The city started its efforts in the early 2000s to rebuild the plaza, but the multimillion-dollar project ran into problems ranging from environmental issues to funding problems.
"We had a grant from the Army Corps of Engineers that was withdrawn after we started the project, the federal government stopped doing the section 206 funding program," Nancolas said.
Thankfully, the Caldwell Urban Renewal Agency stepped in to make sure the project continued. Urban renewal agencies are municipal entities that help drive and direct development and redevelopment in certain areas of their cities.
The Indian Creek Plaza continued to come to the edge of falling apart, but the second time was because of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more commonly known as FEMA.
"Once we got it designed and built, FEMA came in and said 'oh no the projections you had for water in downtown Caldwell we have a different study, and literally we thought it was going to shut the project down completely," he said.
The city of Caldwell also had to get over its negative reputation.
"If we would have just built the creek and not address the crime issue, it would have been a waste of money. We had infrastructure issues, our treatment plant was at capacity, crime was on the rise, we had a reputation as not being a safe community. It was a city of disinvestment, not investment," Nancolas said. "We had a downtown that was spiraling downwards with a vacancy rate of 60 percent plus. People would not have wanted to come downtown if it were not safe. No matter how pretty it is."
Now that Indian Creek Plaza is entering its second year, Caldwell is enjoying a renaissance and the boom has expanded into the rest of the city, bringing new businesses and more jobs to the city.
One of those new businesses is Boise's Rediscovered Books, which added another chapter to its storied history when it opened another location in Caldwell in November.
"We have people coming in from Nampa, Ontario, Payette, the west side of Meridian because it's easier to get into Caldwell from the west side of Meridian than it is in Boise," owner Bruce DeLaney said.
For Scott, the change in downtown Caldwell is something that the community has longed for.
"Families now have a place to bring their kids and come down and eat in Caldwell, and go to the movies in Caldwell, and shop in Caldwell," he said.
"Caldwell is becoming a destination point for lots of folks that before I'm not sure they considered that as a place to come," he said. "There were many times we thought that the mountain was really high and I'm not sure if we'll get to the top of it, there's always a higher peak to climb on the other side, but we're certainly pleased with the progress we've made."
The city requires Destination Caldwell to have 150 days of activities or events hosted at Indian Creek Plaza. Last year alone, they hosted 315 days of activities and events, which attracted visitors from across the Treasure Valley.
So what's next for Indian Creek Plaza and the rest of downtown Caldwell? Mayor Nanacolas told KTVB that while they've come a long way, they still have lots of work to do on in the future, which includes bringing in more businesses, updating the area around the plaza, and plans for the second phase of Indian Creek Plaza.
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