A town that used to be all about smiles, Pocatello barely managed to grin its way into a top 10 list of happiest cities in Idaho.
The Gate City, which was declared “U.S. Smile Capital” 27 years ago today, ranked a somewhat disappointing No. 9 in a recent study titled “Happiest Cities in Idaho” by the credit card comparison and financial education website CreditDonkey.com.
The website listed, in descending order, Lewiston, Rupert, Preston, Meridian, Idaho Falls, Twin Falls, Mountain Home and Post Falls all ahead of Pocatello in terms of happiness.
Yet the website managed to put an attractive face, call it a smiley face, on the city.
“Pocatello is known as the Smile Capital of the U.S., and people are very happy to show off their pearly whites,” CreditDonkey reports. “The city has nearly 55,000 residents and their good mood is downright contagious. Getting to work is a breeze, with an average commute of less than 17 minutes. At the end of the day, workers take home a respectable payday, about a fifth of which goes toward housing.”
The website based its ranking on the number of city residents for each restaurant or bar, the crime rate, the distance each city resident travels to work, the percentage of residents who wake up before 5 a.m., the divorce rate and the amount each resident has to pay for housing in proportion to his or her income.
Sadly, Pocatello didn’t make the most untroubled town in any of those carefree categories. Even Blackfoot, which ranked 10th in the study overall, took home, one would presume in good spirits, the top honor for number of residents per bar or restaurant with a cordial correlation of 338.6 to 1. Pocatello, by the way, placed eighth in that category with one bar or restaurant for every 468.2 residents. Note to aspiring bar and restaurant owners: The Gate City would be happy or happier to accommodate you, according to CreditDonkey’s study, of course.
As one probably would gladly guess, some Pocatellans are not happy with the website’s contented conclusions. And although no one has come forth laughingly demanding a recount, at least one Gate City inhabitant, a licensed clinical social worker, questioned the gleeful gauges the website used to rapturously reach its jovial judgments.
“I had a chance to look at this study. There are some compelling stats in the criteria used, however, what they cannot account for is a qualitative measurement – one’s personal experience,” responded Michael Stevens, the clinical supervisor for Hope Tree Family Services at 109 N. Arthur Ave., in an email to the Journal. And no, he didn’t use the :) symbol even once.
“All they (CreditDonkey researchers) have is simple demographic information, which doesn't measure the human experience, such as ‘happiness,’” Stevens wrote. “Income doesn’t equate happiness, nor does commute time or if I get up by 5 a.m. or not. Interesting criteria though.”
So how does Stevens suggest Pocatello and other Idaho cities can delightfully determine how comparatively close they are to finding true happiness?
“The only way to truly find out is to ask the people in a questionnaire that can better qualify whether one is happy or not. This study doesn't account for the human experience,” he concluded. “Religious differences could play a role in happiness, climate, access to higher education is not accounted for in this study either, or other components that may equate happiness. It’s a limited study and not meant to truly measure happiness, but to measure access to services, crime, etc. It assumes the better the number, it should equate happiness. That may be true, but it may not be either. No one will know that until happiness is actually measured using a different tool.”
Yet by any merry measure, it’s no joke that ecstasy eluded the Gate City in the past. A pouting Pocatello has had prior issues with happiness on a national satisfaction scale.
It all started back in 1948 when then Mayor George Phillips and the City Council passed an ordinance that made not smiling illegal. The city’s website states the “Smile Ordinance” was passed “tongue in cheek,” of course, in response to an exceptionally severe winter, “which had dampened the spirit of city employees and citizens alike.”
Yet the ordinance remained on the books and city staff found it and a Journal reporter wrote about it in 1987. Then the American Bankers Association used the city’s ordinance in a national advertising campaign “emphasizing the theme of outdated laws” in an attempt to convince Congress to modernize banking regulations.
The association’s 1987 ad titled “Ludicrous Laws” reads in part, “Put a smile on your face when you pass through Pocatello, Idaho. (sic.) Because it’s against the law to frown or look gloomy.” The ad then comes to the conclusion, “The outdated laws that regulate banking aren’t so funny.”
In an obvious attempt to turn lemons into lemonade, then Mayor Richard Finlayson invited representations of the bankers group to Pocatello and on Dec. 10, 1987, the American Bankers Association declared the Gate City “U.S. Smile Capital.”
Finlayson, now 81, said on Monday he remembered that Journal reporter Dan Meyers had written a series of articles about the ordinance, which eventually prompted Finlayson, who served as Pocatello’s mayor for just one term from 1986 to 1990, to invite representatives of the national bankers group to “a big ceremony” held on the Idaho State University campus during which the American Bankers Association officially made its declaration.
“I may still have a smile button (from the event) somewhere,” Finlayson recalled.
The former mayor, who said the Smile Ordinance remained on the books throughout his term, also remembered the Journal reporter tried and failed to parlay his perky news coverage about the ordinance into a job with the public relations firm that represented the American Bankers Association at the time.
The city’s website says “in the spirit of fun,” the bankers group’s declaration was perpetuated by making an annual weeklong event called “Smile Days,” which was celebrated with a poster contest for elementary school children, a smile contest, mock arrests of those who refused to smile and a community celebration at the end of the week.
Yet Finlayson, now retired and spending his summers on his ranch in Challis, said Smile Days was put on by the local Chamber of Commerce, not the city.
The former-mayor’s wife, Ann, remembered little about Smile Days.
“Maybe it happened only once,” she said. While Finlayson himself believes the Chamber held Smile Days “sometime in the spring” each year at least up until he left office, but he wasn’t sure.
At some point the Chamber’s Smile Days morphed into a weekend event called “Smilefest,” but no one the Journal was able to contact for this story knew exactly when.
Sam Nettinga, who was the Chamber’s general manager from 1992 to 1999, said Smilefest, put on by the Chamber-sponsored civic group Leadership Pocatello, was an annual event in full force when he assumed his role.
“They gave me a badge, and I would arrest people for not smiling,” he said. “It would take place at the Red Lion Inn.”
Nettinga further explained that the people he would “arrest” were placed in a “cell” at the hotel and would have to call friends to raise money to make “bail.” The money raised would go to a worthy cause.
Matt Hunter, the current president and CEO of what is now the Pocatello Chubbuck Chamber of Commerce, said Leadership Pocatello decided to discontinue Smilefest in 2005 because it proved to be too much for the group, which has another annual event called “Leadership Presents.”
Hunter, who has a framed copy of the city’s Smile Ordinance on the wall in his office, added he wasn’t surprised about the gap in Chamber history in regard to the demise of Smile Days because in the late 1980s until around 1992 the Chamber experienced financial problems and almost ceased to exist.
As for the Smile Ordinance, Tiffany Olsen, a paralegal assistant at the Pocatello city attorney’s office, said it has never been repealed. But, she is quick to point out, it never had to be.
“It has its own sunset clause built in,” she told the Journal on Tuesday.
In fact, the ordinance, passed on Aug. 5, 1948, hardly in the dead of winter as the city’s own website implies, states in two places including its opening paragraph that it applied to the week in 1948 starting Aug. 9 and ending Aug.14, which the ordinance designates as “This Week Pocatello Smiles.” In other words, the ordinance expired more than 66 years ago and, though on the books, was not in effect in 1987 when the American Bankers Association proclaimed it a “Ludicrous Law.” An ad that doesn’t state the truth? Go figure.
And if it likely wasn’t a particularly harsh winter that brought about the Smile Ordinance, why then was it drafted and passed by the city’s elected officials in the first place?
The ordinance states, “In the past it has been the practice of far too many citizens of Pocatello to scowl, grimace, frown, give out threatening and/or lowering looks and depressed facial appearances generally. These actions reflect unfavorably upon the reputation of Pocatello ‘the friendly city’ and are hereby declared illegal and unlawful and will be replaced immediately with happy, beaming, smiling countenances.”
The no-longer-in-force ordinance goes as far as creating “special smileage checking stations” and even deputizing “special individuals to make arrests for smileage failures.”
And the penalty the ordinance imposes for refusing to smile during that week?
“Any person convicted in violation of this ordinance will be required to go to the nearest smileage station and give out with a sufficient number of smiles and/or broad grins as are commensurate with his or her offense.”
So, in effect, the American Bankers Association in 1987 duped the city and the nation with its misleading ad campaign.
It’s enough to put a smile on your face.
So happy holidays — and for those grimacing grinches living within the city limits, no worries.