Urban Growth Is A Double-Edged Sword For Low-Wage Workers In The Mountain West

May 18, 2018

Last weekend, 30 some years of regulars raised a glass to Turner’s Sportsfair, an iconic dive bar and tackle shop on State Street in Boise. Bartender Tammy Wood has worked at Turner's for 35 years. With Boise and many cities across the Mountain West experiencing rapid growth, that means change for some historic neighborhoods and businesses.

Idaho is the fastest-growing state in the country. Utah is close behind at number three and Colorado made the top 10. A lot of that growth is built on changing economies as much of the region moves away from coal and gas toward new industries like technology, recreation and healthcare. This shift means lost opportunities — as well as new ones. Wood is experiencing both. 

Turner’s Sportsfair is your typical neighborhood dive bar. There’s a lottery game, a pinball machine. The faint scent of stale cigarettes clings to the old bar stools and pool tables.   

“The bar is all marred up from tequila slammers back in the day," says Wood. 

Turner’s celebrated more than 70 years in business on Saturday with a BBQ and potluck. Woods' regulars walked up to her with hugs and tears, sharing memories about rowdy parties back and signing T-shirts to remember their favorite neighborhood hangout. Wood says she’ll miss her people here. 

She tells the story of how she walked into Turner's when she was 19 and never left. She’s now 55. 

“Geez, when I first started there were two beer taps: Bud, Coors. Now we have like 10.” 

Vodka is her most common hard liquor order, Wood says. “Screwdrivers, vodka crans-- simple stuff. They don’t order no fancy stuff cause they aint’ gettin it.” 

The joint bar and tackle shop is in a neighborhood seeing big change. An intersection expansion to deal with increasing traffic displaced Smoky Davis, a local meat shop. Upscale restaurants ike Vincenzo’s Trattoria are moving in among the burger joints and donut shops. A few months ago, owners of Turner's put the business on the market. It didn’t take long for the property to sell. 

It was a shock to Tammy Wood. Bartending is all she knows.

“I can’t even imagine anything different,” says Wood. She worries over her options.  

Wood never got her high school diploma. Thirty-five years ago, that wasn’t abnormal.  You could still earn a decent living if you dropped out of high school. 

And Wood says, working at Turner's was its own kind of education. First of all, she learned lots of patience. 

Turner's Sportsfair in Boise closed its doors for good in mid-May 2018.
Credit Amanda Peacher / Mountain West News Bureau

“Oh Lord. Hang out a few days you’ll see, honey,” she says, laughing. “You’re not fast enough with their drinks, you put the wrong color of straw in it … you didn’t give em two straws, you forgot the coaster.” 

She also became a really good listener. 

“Oh I hear all kinds of stuff. All kinds of things that probably should stay in them walls.” 

Today, much of our region’s high school graduation rate is still below the national average. 

But the employment market has changed. Most jobs require at least a high school degree. Without one, you’re not likely to make more than $520 a week. And rent, house prices and the general cost of living are growing in our region along with the population.  

On this final Saturday afternoon, the bar is packed. All the goodbyes are hard for Tammy. But she also has reason to celebrate: She found another job. 

“I’m going to a place called Simply LEDs,” says Wood. “They assemble LED lights." 

Her new workplace has expanded in recent years, which is one reason why she found a job. Idaho, Colorado and Utah all saw strong economic growth last year, and many businesses are feeling the effects. For the first time in Wood's life, her work will pay for health insurance. So even though her job at Turners was a victim of change in Boise, her new job is also came about because of growth. She’s excited, but also nervous. 

“I know I’ll miss this place,” said Wood. “This is my community, this is what I know.”

Find reporter Amanda Peacher on Twitter @amandapeacher.

Copyright 2018 Boise State Public Radio

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.