The Right Site

Nampa's new GIS tool points business real-estate shoppers to suitable properties.

by / October 28, 2003
People just won't stop building homes in Nampa, Idaho. Twenty miles west of Boise, this city of 52,000 is sprouting subdivisions so fast that keeping track of new streets is a challenge for police and firefighters, said Rod Collins, Nampa's GIS coordinator.

Not content to remain a bedroom community, city officials and private-sector individuals are working to complement the housing boom with further growth.

"We've recognized the need to diversify and build on our commercial and industrial component," said Todd Bunderson, the city's director of finance and economic development.

Soon Nampa will have a new tool for attracting businesses. Building on its GIS, the city is developing a Web-based application to help site selectors quickly zero in on properties that suit their needs. Entering criteria, such as how much land they seek and what utilities they require, site shoppers can view maps of eligible properties and find detailed information on those lots.

Sleeper Metro
As part of the Boise metropolitan area, Nampa sits in a region that Forbes magazine ranked No. 2 this year on its list of "Best Places for Business and Careers."

"We're kind of a sleeper metro area," Bunderson said, despite the ranking on the Forbes list. "There may be a lot of folks who don't know about us."

Grabbing the attention of businesses today means getting the word out on the Web. "Increasingly site selectors and business shoppers use the Internet to assess the community before they even call someone," Bunderson said. Nampa officials want property details on the Web "so when people are shopping, they can see what we have to offer."

Nampa has been operating its GIS for about two years, said Ronda Halvorsen-Ferns, president of High Desert Geo-Technologies in Bend, Ore., the city's GIS consulting firm. Supporting the system through its general fund, Nampa uses the GIS in several departments, such as engineering, waterworks and wastewater, along with economic development.

For some time, Collins has extracted data from the GIS to help Bunderson deliver information to prospective businesses. "We built an ArcIMS site for internal use, for property searches," Collins said. "It shows aerial photos, building footprints, utilities and other things." A product of Redlands, Calif.-based ESRI, ArcIMS is a tool for delivering GIS and mapping services via the Web.

Supplementing information from this site with data from other sources, Bunderson creates presentations for site selectors. But gathering this information has been a very manual, labor-intensive process. For example, the city recently sent one national retailer a dozen maps of prospective sites, with details about the properties overlaid on aerial photos.

"We spent several days putting that information together for them," he said.

Earlier this year, Bunderson asked Collins how he might create these presentations more quickly and from his desktop. Given the right tool, realtors and engineering firms, and perhaps the public, could investigate sites on their own via the Web.

Collins worked with High Desert on the new economic development application, which he hoped to make available to city employees by October. Nampa might release a version of the tool for public use next year, he said.

The application will draw upon a growing collection of data layers in Nampa's GIS. The city has assessment and taxation data on individual parcels from the Canyon County government. The data has layers that represent building outlines, street centerlines and pavement edges, said Halvorsen-Ferns. Using GPS, city workers have also mapped locations of water valves, hydrants and meters, she said.

High Desert helped create a zoning information layer, said Collins, and further data for the system will come from the U.S. Census Bureau and other government agencies.

Most recently, High Desert has worked on a layer that identifies business locations, said Blair Deaver, a GIS programmer-analyst with the consulting firm. Using this data, a site selector exploring a potential location can see what other types of businesses are in that area.

Two Preliminary Tools
High Desert already released two applications that allow city staff to query information about individual properties through a browser interface. "[One application] will zoom to the tax lot, so you can see all the mapping information," Deaver said, noting that it also shows all county taxation information, such as the property's mailing address and value.

A second tool helps the city identify property owners it must notify about a pending change to a nearby parcel, such as a zoning variance. The user selects the parcel, defines an area around it -- perhaps 300 feet -- and receives information on all properties within that zone. "They can export that information into an Excel spreadsheet and print out the letter and labels," Collins said.

When the new application is ready, city employees working with businesses will search properties based on specific requirements. "Say somebody says, 'I need a 10-acre parcel. I need to make sure water's close, sewer's close [and] maybe I need a railroad spur,'" Collins explained. "[City employees] can query this database, and it will pull up those prospective properties that fit those criteria."

Industrial businesses want that sort of information, of which Nampa has a lot already mapped, Bunderson said. People seeking sites for stores or restaurants need other specifics, such as the number of homes in the area, growth rates, traffic counts and upcoming transportation improvements that could drive more traffic to the area.

The new tool will provide information about sites much faster than gathering data and maps from multiple sources. Instead of taking several days to assemble a package, the application will perform the task in a matter of minutes or hours, Bunderson said.

The system will produce attractive, professional-looking presentations that highlight the information site selectors need, Bunderson said.

"It's hard to get someone's attention without good packaging if you've got a company that might be shopping several states," he observed. "I think that will make quite a difference in how many bites we get from some of the responses we send."

The application could also hone in on eligible parcels that a manual search might miss, including properties not on the market, but whose owners might be willing to consider offers. In addition, it might point out smaller, adjoining parcels a buyer could assemble to make one suitable lot, Bunderson said.

Eventually Bunderson would like the GIS to interface with the databases of commercial and industrial properties kept by local real-estate firms. Though Nampa-area realtors have a Multiple Listings Service for homes, the area has no comprehensive clearing-house for business properties, he said. "Our interest is in adding visibility to all the properties for sale, and making better connections to the information on our Web site."

What Can We Give Out?
Before offering the application to users outside city government, Nampa officials must determine how much information to provide, and under what conditions.

"We're talking with our attorney about what information we can or can't give out," Collins said, adding the city is also trying to determine what it can charge if the city imposes fees.

The city might first provide the tool to selected users, such as realtors and engineering firms, on a subscription basis. The city may then offer a portion of that information to the public free of charge, Collins said. "Or we may make the whole thing free," he added. "We haven't looked at everything we can and can't do."

All the data that supports the application is public information, so one could argue that the city should provide all of it for free to anyone who wants it, Bunderson said, noting that property owners may have concerns about how easily others can access information about their holdings.

"It's a policy question about how convenient we make that for general public consumption," he said, adding that governments commonly assess fees that help pay to compile, produce and update information they share with the public.

"The feedback we've gotten so far has been positive," Bunderson said. "People think it would be fair to charge for some of this."

The bottom line is the new tool could make Nampa stronger competitor in a tough economy.

"Businesses have a lot of choices," Bunderson said. "There are a lot of states with a lot of incentives out there. Everyone's trying to put their best foot forward and show their assets. We have to show [businesses] what we have to offer, and help them find what they're looking for. This tool will allow us to do that more quickly and with a much better presentation."

Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs