Burley: Idaho’s Heart
With breathtaking sights, friendly people and countless recreational opportunities, Burley is one of the best-kept secrets in southern Idaho.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2010 issue of Community magazine. Content has been edited for accuracy.
To the average passerby, Burley, Idaho, looks like just another stop on the map. But ask a local what this small town is all about and you'll find Burley is one of the best-kept secrets in southern Idaho.
Residing in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains, the city of roughly 10,000 is a highlight in the Magic Valley region. With the Snake River meandering through, Burley boasts some of the most breathtaking sights Idaho has to offer.
“We take that for granted, having to cross that river every day,” says Doug Manning, former mayor and current economic development director in Burley. “But when people come into town, they say: ‘Wow, what a phenomenal river.’ And it is. It’s our lifeblood here.”
Burley’s history is rooted in the 19th century pioneering of the West. David E. Burley, a passenger agent for the Oregon Short Line Railroad, discovered that the dirt in the area could successfully grow sugar beets. The spot officially became founded as Burley in 1905.
History buffs can still travel the Oregon and California trails, which cut through the southern and northern ends of Burley, respectively. Cassia County (Burley is the county seat) has more miles of pioneer trails than any other part of the nation.
The agriculture that attracted the American pioneers is still the major economic driver in Burley today. Beets, dairy and, of course, Idaho potatoes are all major products grown in Burley.
It's only been in recent years that Burley has tried to diversify its economy by bringing in value-added products.
“The geographic location, we’re starting to be a distribution hub,” Manning adds. “A few years ago we kind of jokingly came up with the slogan: ‘Wherever you’re going, we’re halfway there.’”
That's because Burley is central to the Seattle/Portland areas and Denver.
The push to actively court businesses to Burley, however, didn't start until 2003, when the J.R. Simplot Co. potato processing plant shut down its Heyburn operations across the river and moved to Manitoba, Canada. The closure put 700 to 800 people out of work.
“It really created a problem here for a while,” Manning says. “And that was the first time everyone in the community got together and said, ‘We have to work together and get through this.’”
Since then, Burley has attracted companies such as Dot Foods and Mulholland Positioning Systems into town, recouping roughly 500 of those lost jobs. Burley also began a business retention and expansion program that includes specialized job training at the city’s institutions of higher education such as the College of Southern Idaho satellite campus and a regional technical center. Students can also begin taking college courses in architecture and welding in high school.
“That’s been our goal: to try and create an environment that if people would like to come back here and work, they have that option,” Manning says. “We went through a long time period where you couldn’t do that unless you had a family that owned a business.
“People have a great work ethic here.”
What anchors the locals and entices the tourists is the town’s recreational offerings. Burley may be small, but it’s packed with nature's wonders.
In the winter, there's snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and skiing and snowboarding at nearby Pomerelle Mountain.
But summer is when Burley really shines. Boating, kayaking, canoeing, waterskiing, wakeboarding, jet skiing, sailing, swimming, rock climbing, fishing and even base-jumping are all enjoyed on the 20 miles of accessible river. Burley also hosts the annual Wake in the Snake wakeboarding competition and Idaho Regatta speed boat race.
Burley is also home to famed triathlon Spudman and the Cassia County Fair and Rodeo.
Off the banks of the river is the18-hole Burley Golf Course. A few miles away is Storybook Park, designed by members of the community, featuring a play yard resembling a castle. Just a few blocks from there is a skate park.
Culturally, Burley hits the mark. The King Fine Arts Center, a 1,300-seat Broadway-size stage, features year-round productions. The Cassia County Historical Museum and National Pioneer Hall of Fame are also in Burley.
Resident Mike Ramsey says what really makes Burley great are the people. “I have lived in a lot of places and have never seen such a close and giving community,” Ramsey says. “That is why I moved back here. That is why I want my kids to be raised here.”