CALDWELL — Garret Nancolas prayed about it with his family. He had spent eight years on Caldwell City Council, but he always wanted more. To really have the effect he dreamed of, he had to go one step further. He had to go all out.
In 1996, Nancolas was a manager in a furniture store. He told his company that he was considering running for mayor a year early, so he could quit his job. His boss left him with a tough decision. The hiring process to replace a manager would have taken longer than the time between the election and Nancolas’ potential start date.
If Nancolas ran and there was a chance he could leave, the company was going to replace him regardless of the election results. He still had the chance to come back to the company, but only as a salesman, not as a manager.
At the time, Nancolas’ two children were teenagers. He had a family to support. He was in danger of losing his job as manager. He was scared. But as a family, the Nancolas were ready for a new adventure.
“I just wanted to see Caldwell change,” Nancolas said. “I knew that if I was really going to influence change and be able to really help create the town I thought Caldwell should be, the only way to do that was to try and run for mayor.”
Nancolas, 64, spent almost 60 years at Caldwell. Early in his political career, he dreamed of his youth, when Caldwell town center was bustling and business boomed. Over time, however, businesses divested from the city center and progress stagnated. Nancolas was discouraged. Making a better place for families has become his top priority.
“At the time, I had two kids growing up,” Nancolas said. “I wanted them to enjoy the same kind of Caldwell as when I was a kid.”
The reason Nancolas ran for office is the reason he’s not running again after six terms for mayor.
In recent months, health issues have forced him to consider his own mortality. He’s better now, but there’s a season for everything, as he says. No one lies on their deathbed wishing they could spend more time in a business meeting.
In April, Nancolas announced that he would not run again. His term as mayor of Caldwell will end in January after 24 years. His tenure was long enough that he had time not only to develop a detailed roadmap for the city, but to see it through. Prior to Nancolas, Caldwell never had a two-term mayor, he said.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle how things have come together,” Nancolas said.
“I feel at this point I have to keep my 14-year-old daughter out of the fray of this current political environment and first and foremost I have to be her mother,” Jean Mutchie said.
Nancolas joined the Caldwell Planning and Zoning Commission in 1987. Two years later he was elected to the town council. Eight years later, he was elected mayor.
Since then, Nancolas’ leadership has helped overturn Caldwell’s reputation, reduce the crime rate, and reorganize the town center. It relied on urban renewal and partnerships with other agencies. With families at the top of his priorities, Nancolas had a simple framework for making decisions. But to be as informed as possible, he had to listen first.
Nancolas spoke with other mayors and residents. He coordinated workshops and public meetings. He wanted to soak up what he could.
“I had these childhood goals and dreams. To reinvigorate that kind of excitement in the town of Caldwell,” Nancolas said. “But did I know exactly how to do it? No. I felt like it. I had the passion. But I had to learn.”
During Nancolas’ first six months as mayor, he focused on collecting feedback. His weeks frequently extended to 70, 80 or 90 hours. Some days he didn’t come home until after midnight.
Eventually Caldwell began making plans. The revitalization of the city centre, the modernization of the city’s wastewater treatment plant and the construction of a business park were all essential elements.
“A vision without a plan is just a dream,” Nancolas said. “A vision without a funding mechanism is a hallucination.”
Nancolas helped establish the Caldwell Urban Renewal Agency in 1998. While urban renewal can often be controversial, supporters of Caldwell’s plan and execution point to the many positive effects it has had. Urban Renewal Districts use property tax growth in a specific geographic area and direct those tax funds to that area to pay for improvement projects.
Although long-term planning is common in cities, it is rare for individuals to stick around long enough to see their plans through to completion. Nancolas’ long career as mayor allowed him to be involved from start to finish.
“It was literally a herculean task on the part of staff, community members, partners to put all of these pieces in place that produced the results you are seeing now,” Nancolas said. “…All of these pieces came together through the groundwork we laid down in 1998 and 1999.”
As Nancolas established how he wanted to run the city, people started to take notice. Rob Hopper was a Caldwell School Board Trustee. As he watched Nancolas operate with families at the forefront of his decision-making, Hopper was inspired to join the city council.
Hopper was elected to his seat in 2001 and has held it ever since.
“When the mayor took office, his vision was to create assets for children and families and change the environment in Caldwell,” Hopper said. “I recognized that the vision was what we needed and that it would help the schools. When an opening presented itself to the city council, I jumped on it.
Another pillar of Nancolas’ tenure has been his partnerships with other agencies. He helped the city invest in its police department, which set up a system of prevention, intervention and repression. Community policing, such as the establishment of school resource officers, has also become more important. This led to reduced crime rates and an improvement in Caldwell’s image.
In the mid-2000s, Nancolas worked with YMCA to build a facility in Caldwell. Nancolas visited fourth grade classrooms to talk to students and hear their feedback. Jim Everett, who is now co-president of the College of Idaho, was previously the CEO of Treasure Valley YMCA. He said he had never seen a mayor do something like that.
Caldwell was “pretty much a wasteland” for assets available to children, Hopper said. The first day the YMCA opened in Caldwell in 2005, several hundred people showed up, Hopper and Everett recall.
“Where were those children yesterday?” thought Hopper.
Between the infrastructure being built and the increase in programs available for children, residents of Caldwell began to notice changes.
Caldwell invested $8 million to upgrade its water and sewer systems, allowing the city to accommodate greater growth. He discovered Indian Creek beginning in 2004, which helped create a more attractive downtown area and preceded the construction of Indian Creek Plaza. The construction of the Sky Ranch Business Park has attracted businesses and, in turn, people who can support other businesses.
The type of place envisioned by Nancolas is taking shape.
“He just created the right petri dish for people looking to work together with a common goal,” Everett said.
Years ago, when Caldwell had a negative reputation, it affected the College of Idaho. Now that the reputation has improved, Everett said, it helps the school recruit. When prospective students learn about and see Caldwell, it’s a benefit, Everett said.
People used to “lay a low profile” when they said they were from Caldwell, Hopper recalls. Now, when he attends events in Boise, he often hears that Caldwell is a place people want to move to.
“There’s nothing like a hometown you’re proud of and can brag about,” Hopper said. “We’re finally at the place where we can legitimately brag about Caldwell and people are like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. … It’s becoming a very good destination and a place to live.
Hopper pointed out how difficult it can be not only to develop long-term projects, but also to stick around all the time. Nancolas, however, brings credit to the people he has worked with. He is grateful to them, those who associated with the city and the people he served.
The risk of giving up his leadership position paid off.
“It was the privilege of a lifetime,” Nancolas said.
Paul Schwedelson covers Growth, Nampa and Caldwell. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.