REXBURG, Idaho — It's harvest time in the Snake River Valley. Combines are tracing back and forth across wheat fields and public schools are letting out so students can harvest rows and rows of potatoes. But one southeastern Idaho town is a little busier than its neighboring communities. In a little more than four years, it went from a small two-year college town to a four-year, accredited university community. In one year alone, from 2002 to 2003, the city of Rexburg, Idaho, grew 16 percent.
Today, of the some 20,000 residents, more than half are students from more than 50 countries and every state in the union — Latter-day Saint young adults seeking an education who bring a vitality not only of economic but also of significant social and spiritual proportions. And, of course, with that impact come challenges of traffic and infrastructure, and maybe even a bit of culture.
But city and BYU-Idaho officials seem to have the same message, "Think of the potential!"
"Watching this, participating in this just lets you know that heaven is in charge," BYU-Idaho President David A. Bednar told the Church News recently, commenting on the transition of Ricks College to BYU-Idaho and the resulting growth in the area. "It's inevitable that we're going to encounter bumps, so we're trying to work through and minimize the effects of the bumps as we go through this transition. A part of how that works is just simply trying not to surprise the city."
The city was surprised enough in 2000 with the announcement from the First Presidency and Board of Trustees that the Church-owned institution founded here in 1888, first as Bannock Stake Academy and later as Ricks College, would become Brigham Young University-Idaho. Since then, new apartment buildings, new academic buildings — including the razing and rebuilding of the Jacob Spori Building — and many new businesses have sprung up. A recent census bureau report announced Rexburg as the fastest growing city in Idaho and the 10th largest in the state. Some estimates have the population at 30,000 by the year 2020, although some numbers show a stabilizing of growth.
And they'll soon have a temple, as well. Residents and students currently attend the Idaho Falls Idaho Temple, about 30 miles south of Rexburg where the population is some 95 percent LDS.
During his commencement address on April 17, 2004, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve said: "I want you to know that you live in a place when you live in Rexburg that is unique in all of the world. . . . As I looked over the buildings here and contemplate soon the building of a temple and see the tremendous investment that has been made in Rexburg, (I also) say there is no place in the world where the tithing and the resources of the Church per capita have been shared and expended more bounteously than here in Rexburg. I hope all the citizens of Rexburg, I hope all you students, appreciate the great blessing and the tremendous portion of the Lord's resources that have been given to this part of our Heavenly Father's vineyard. It is significant. This is a special place."
Mayor Shawn Larsen knows it. A Rexburg native, Mayor Larsen returned with his family some five years ago after working in South Carolina as constituent service manager in the state office of former U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. After the senator left office, the soon-to-be Rexburg Mayor Larsen packed up his family and moved home. "I grew up working the potato fields. You go out today and see the sprinklers and see the harvest taking place right now. It brings back wonderful memories. I love the vistas of the Tetons and the open space. I think there's a value in that in our community."
And while working with university officials in facilitating the growth and prosperity of the area, he also wants to keep that small town value. "We've recently developed a slogan for Rexburg — America's Family Community. I would like to see 20, 30 years from now that Rexburg continues to be America's family community, that it's a great place to raise a family and a great place to live.
"I was talking to a student last night who came to our meeting and he said, 'A year ago my wife and I wanted to finish school and move on. Now we just bought a home here in Rexburg. We want to stay here.' "
So to foster the small town values and yet welcome the growth, Mayor Larsen has been working closely with professional community developers from Boise, the state capital. Review teams, he said, have looked at three areas: civic life and community involvement, land use planning, and community identity and design.
And city and university officials continue to work closely together in fostering communication and building bridges between students and residents.
For example, said President Bednar: "We have the head of the Chamber of Commerce on one of our advancement committees so we link with the community. That helps facilitate better communication between the community and the university. We have a leadership and services institute on campus that does extensive work in the community in nursing homes and in the schools. Our educational students are assisting in the classrooms in local schools, so you get an LDS population of young people here and their desire to serve really becomes a huge benefit."
Of course, as the city grows, there is the occasional bumping into one another, President Bednar said. "Part of what we've tried to do is not grow so quickly."
The increase in the number of students, he said, has occurred incrementally "so that it wouldn't hit at once."
Richard F. Smith, a former BYU-Idaho stake president, local attorney and farmer, has watched closely these changes occur. Today, Brother Smith is also the university liaison with the community. "The community is 100 percent behind the college," he told the Church News. "They are so supportive. The residents of this town love the members here, and they love the university for what it is and what it brings to this community. Sometimes that translation doesn't come through from community leaders who
are involved in the day-to-day struggle with infrastructure and storm sewer and parking and transportation and fire protection and police protection and everything else. But I can tell you that the community and the citizens here absolutely love the university for everything that it is."
His wife, Jill, is quick to back that up. A convert to the Church in 1977, she came to Ricks College with her sister from northern California. At the time, she remembers, there was a grocery store, and students drove to Idaho Falls for activities. Today, she is amazed at the growth and the self-sustaining nature of her home.
President Bednar sees the Rexburg of 10, 15, 20 years from now as a place of "seemingly opposites — stability and innovation." Students even then, he said, will take the friendliness of the community here as they "move out and go to communities and vocations all over the earth."
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