REXBURG — When Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill grew up in Rexburg during the 1960s, most shops were on Main Street.
There were rows of clothing stores, burger stands and a J.C. Penney that survived for nearly a century.
Three pharmacies also lined the strip, including a Thriftway Drug run by Hill’s father. Hill would often get soft drinks at the attached soda fountain, as would other kids and teenagers.
The Main Street pharmacies have since disappeared, though soft drink cravings can be satisfied at Soda Vine on Second West.
The drink stop opened several years ago in response to a burgeoning student population after two-year Ricks College became Brigham Young University-Idaho in 2001.
The school’s change from a junior college to a university exponentially accelerated growth in Rexburg, a city with humble agricultural beginnings.
Apartment buildings replaced houses that used to flank Main Street, while restaurants and boutiques catering to college students continue to pop up.
Rexburg’s population was less than 5,000 people in the ’60s. It grew to more than 17,000 people in 2000 and topped 27,000 people in 2015.
“I don’t think any of us imagined it growing at the pace it has, especially in the last decade or so since Ricks College became a four-year,” Hill said. “There’s so many apartments now, some over five stories high. You wouldn’t see anything over two stories in the ’60s or ’70s in Rexburg.”
Enrollment drives overall growth
Student population at BYU-Idaho has spurred construction of housing complexes, campus buildings, such as the BYU-Idaho Center and the Hyrum Manwaring Center, and local businesses.
Total campus enrollment is up 61 percent since the conversion to BYU-Idaho. For the fall semester in 2016, the total campus enrollment was 17,980. The enrollment total for all three semesters in 2016 showed the university’s largest student body in its history.
Rob Garrett, vice president of executive strategy and planning, has worked at BYU-Idaho for 15 years and has seen changes both on campus and in the community.
Garrett attributes some of the enrollment growth to church membership growth as well as the university’s efforts to provide a quality education. The church has added nearly four million members since 2003, when it had 11.9 million members.
University surveys show that BYU-Idaho’s appealing qualities include its faculty’s teaching focus, the opportunity to gather with other students who share common values, real-world preparation and a high-value education, Garrett said.
About 57 percent of on-campus students in the winter 2017 semester served full-time missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some of whom learned a foreign language during their service.
In the winter 2017 semester, 1,097 on-campus students were international students who were from countries with national languages other than English.
The university employs 1,658 full-time employees, including administration, staff, full-time faculty and adjunct faculty. That’s nearly 500 employees more than it had a decade ago, according to the city of Rexburg’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan, written in 2008.
Business attracted to students as customers, employees
Madison County’s unemployment rate was 2.1 percent in March, the lowest in the state where the average is 3.5 percent.
Earlier this month, NAVEX Global, an ethics and compliance software and services company, announced it will expand its Rexburg operations with a call center which is expected to create up to 100 jobs.
The concentration of potential applicants who possess multilingual skills, typically acquired on an LDS mission, is attractive to companies such as NAVEX with customers around the world.
“I think we have kind of a well-kept secret of a pretty massive work force here that’s very talented in languages and things like that,” Rexburg Mayor Jerry Merrill said.
Other call centers that provide similar opportunities in Rexburg include AvantGuard Monitoring Centers, Melaleuca and Progrexion.
Merrill said Rexburg’s workforce appeals to more than call centers.
“What we’ve got here that companies need to be aware of is just a really well-educated workforce that is available and willing to work and can contribute a lot to a company that’s looking to expand,” Merrill said.
Some businesses opened in Rexburg largely because of the student population.
Soda Vine, which opened in June 2014, saw the potential of students as both workers and consumers.
Manager Kaitlyn Anderson said the owners opened the business primarily to help students pay for college and support their families.
“They wanted to be able to help and give back to students,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the key to the company’s success has been customer service, word of mouth and social media. The warmer weather that comes with spring doesn’t hurt, either.
“Business has just been so successful, especially lately,” she said.
The Burg, a local restaurant that serves burgers, fries and shakes, opened in July 2015 and its sales have steadily increased.
Manager Layne Davidson said The Burg’s owner saw an opportunity for good business.
Davidson said the business is outgrowing its current location across the street from BYU-Idaho’s campus, and the owner is considering moving to a larger location.
Davidson said although locals eat at the restaurant, its target demographic is students, and the key to the business’ success has been keeping prices low and quality high.
The Burg also appeals to college students by offering weeknight entertainment such as open mic nights, karaoke nights and local band performances on Friday nights.
Keeping pace with growth
Madison School District 321 has seen an influx of students since the early 2000s.
Elementary schools are “fairly full,” Merrill said, and the district is considering building another elementary school in the near future.
BYU-Idaho educates many nontraditional students who have children, Madison assistant superintendent Randy Lords said.
“The district is definitely being impacted. You get more families in town and that means more kids,” he said. “We feel growing pains because we don’t tend to build as fast. We rely on levies and bonds when we have big growth, but when you ask patrons to tax themselves it’s a challenge.”
The district passed a bond in 2008 to rebuild Madison High School due to population growth. Madison Junior High School relocated into the old high school, while district offices moved into the old junior high building.
District officials are already discussing additions to the new high school, which was completed in 2010 with room and infrastructure to accommodate extra wings.
Additions also are being considered for Kennedy Elementary School, near West Main Street. A proposed university apartment building for married students could double Kennedy’s 300-student population, Lords said.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth in elementary schools especially from parents going to BYU-Idaho,” Lords said. “But we’re grateful for the growth.
The city’s fire and police departments also have been forced to adapt.
Merrill said Rexburg’s ratio of police officers or firefighters per thousand people is one of the lowest in the country.
“We try to do a lot with the small amount of resources we have,” he said.
The Rexburg Police Department and Madison Fire Department have each added personnel within the last year, since BYU-Idaho removed its paramedics program.
“We had usually six interns a year from (the BYU-Idaho paramedics program),” he said. “We’ve had to replace those and that’s cost us.”
Although the loss in interns has cost the city, BYU-Idaho contributes about $1 million a year to the city’s police and fire departments.
“(BYU-Idaho) definitely does contribute financially to the support of our police and fire departments,” Merrill said. “They don’t just demand services and not be willing to pitch in for those services.”
Growth begets growth
Apart from growing up, Rexburg has grown outward.
After minimal annexations from 1982 to 1999, Rexburg’s footprint expanded considerably from 2000 to 2015, according to a city map. Western subdivision growth is especially pronounced. The city’s footprint doubled from 2000 to 2010.
Despite the rapid expansion, the city’s infrastructure has been solid, Public Works Director Keith Davidson said. City personnel are working on a set of infrastructure projects worth $22 million.
Planners completed a traffic study a few years ago, and stoplights have been added near the university to moderate vehicle flow. The seven-week breaks between BYU-Idaho terms give crews ideal opportunities to work on infrastructure, though U.S. Highway 20 gets backed up when the semester begins.
Wastewater treatment plant upgrades are wrapping up in the next few months. The plant’s capacity will increase from 3 million gallons per day to 5.4 million gallons per day, Davidson said.
City officials also are selecting a site for a new water reservoir, on which they hope to begin construction in the summer.
“You just keep planning for a larger population,” Davidson said.
City workers also are conducting water line upgrades. Subdivision growth to the north has been put on hold until city officials can complete a study on water lines there, Davidson said.
“Our system was built to handle quite a bit, but we’re getting to the point where we need to increase line sizing around town,” Davidson said. “Part of the biggest aspect of the stress on resources from population growth is just your capacity and line sizes.”
In the meantime, commerical growth in the north continues.
Construction is underway on a Panda Express restaurant near the Wal-Mart Super Center on Second East. Other restaurants, hotels and businesses are also eyeing the area, Rexburg Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Mann said.
The city’s industrial sector also continues to grow, with companies including Lockwood Manufacturing, Matrix Drilling Products and Citius Composites drawing employees.
“After population growth you see an increase in business, then more in population, and they kind of follow each other. We just have to make sure our job creation and economic outlook stays right in the middle of all that,” Mann said. “But I think Rexburg is prime for growth, and we look forward to seeing more of that. People want to live here because of the growth.”