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Today would have marked the start of the 123rd edition of the Western Idaho Fair, but the Expo Idaho and fairgrounds are mostly empty this week due to COVID-19.
But, while there’s not much action on the grounds themselves, there’s significant movement on the potential future of the 240-acre site.
Ball Ventures Ahlquist has teamed up with Greenstone Properties and Agon Sports, which owns the Boise Hawks. The groups envision a redevelopment of a significant portion of the Expo Idaho site. The idea could bring forth a $234-million project that would remake a large, mostly underused property near the population center of the Treasure Valley. At least in its initial phase, it would leave the majority of the actual fairgrounds in place.
Agon & Greenstone earlier teamed with former Boise Mayor Dave Bieter on several proposals for a stadium in Downtown Boise. Each of them didn’t work out, and ultimately a citizen’s petition and new mayor Lauren McLean put an end to the idea of public dollars being used for a stadium in Boise.
“Nobody can ever say we’re not persistent,” Jeff Eiseman, President of Agon Sports, which owns the Boise Hawks told BoiseDev with a chuckle. “For us, with the Boise Hawks – to some degree it’s an existential threat. Memorial Stadium is the least desirable facility in our classification – not just in NW League, but all of Minor League Baseball.”
Now, Agon and Greenstone have a new partner – and new idea.
“With COVID, it’s probably not the ideal time to bring this up, but baseball is forcing the issue. It’s 240 acres in the heart of the city that could be a really good property,” BVA CEO Dr. Tommy Ahlquist said. “We wanted to be transparent and say, ‘here’s what we are thinking. It’s probably going to change a bunch of times,’ but at least it’s out there for the public to consume.”
The proposal, which Ahlquist calls a vision and first step, would transform much of the Expo Idaho site in years to come.
BVA & Greenstone appeared during an executive session of the Greater Boise Auditorium District at its meeting earlier this week. They also are speaking to the co-chairs of the Ada County Citizens’ Advisory Committee for Expo Idaho today, ahead of a public meeting next week. Ada County owns the property and holds the keys to any future project, while GBAD could serve as a source of funding and operational support.
Early this year, the Ada County Commission decided to look at how to use the property in the future.
In a project presentation provided to BoiseDev by BVA, much of the Expo Idaho site would see new uses. The current parking lots, Hawks Memorial Stadium site, Les Bois Park horse track area, an RV park, and other uses would give way to a redevelopment project with significant scope.
Les Bois Park, the longtime home of horse racing in the area, shut down after a prior operator walked away from the site. It failed to win voter approval to allow the operation of slot machines, which it called ‘historical horse racing’ terminals.
Here’s the current concept proposed by BVA & Greenstone:
- The current Hawks Memorial Stadium would be demolished. A new stadium would pop up, roughly in the area south of the main fairgrounds gates where a parking lot now stands. It would be surrounded by a hotel, a plaza, office buildings and facilities for the Boise Hawks. It could also house a new United Soccer League minor-pro franchise. It would be surrounded by potential retail and restaurant uses, as well as office space.
- New playing fields would go in near the Boise River, in an area that is mostly unsuitable for development due to flood plain issues. Renderings show half a dozen soccer fields, plus additional park space. The fields would use synthetic turf and feature lighting. The Boise River Greenbelt, which currently runs through the site, would be maintained and rerouted.
- Along Glenwood, the developers would build multi-family housing, just to the west of the fairgrounds site, in another portion of the parking lot.
- New single-family homes could be constructed near the Boise River along Glenwood, as well as on the east side of the site.
- Other facilities include office buildings, a promenade, additional mutli-family housing, a parking facility, service type businesses and a new park replacing the existing Lady Bird Park along Chinden.
For now, the core fairgrounds area, as well as exhibition building and related facilities would remain in place.
“We like the idea of the expo and the fair remaining and being there,” Eiseman said. “You have an event that does 250,000 (visitors) a year. What we’re looking at is, how do we give this a better front door and make it more inviting?”
Ahlquist said many of the elements would phase in over a period of years. He said the proposal could change and evolve as input comes in from the public and elected officials.
“I think the formula for success in development is, ‘what’s the vision?’ Then the next thing is clarity: everyone understands their part and how it’s going to be paid for. Then plan, and then action.”
The future of many sports is a big topic of conversation across the country in the wake of the pandemic. The Boise Hawks and all other Minor League Baseball teams did not compete this year.
Minor League Baseball, or MiLB, operates in conjunction with Major League Baseball – or MLB. Before the pandemic, the two organizations started looking at how to reshape the minors in future years. As we noted previously, one scenario would reshape the Northwest League, home to the Boise Hawks, by expanding to a longer season and cutting teams.
The current agreement between MiLB and MLB expires next month. MLB leaders have proposed cutting the number of minor league teams from 160 to 120, according to ESPN.
Eisman echoed reporting that teams in Salem-Keizer, OR, and Tri-Cities, WA could face the chopping block. But he said the future of the Hawks as a minor league franchised is more threatened than the public knows.
“At the beginning of the year, the president of Minor League Baseball said ‘hey Boise, don’t sit back and think you are completely in the clear.’ He said as this thing evolves, that if we aren’t prepared and aren’t making meaningful progress, we aren’t guaranteed.”
The Hawks have a long-term lease on Memorial Stadium that runs into the 2030s, and costs $1 per year.
Youth sports a focus
Beyond the potential stadium, the plan has a significant focus on sports.
Eisman said parts of this project came out of the things Agon & Greenstone learned while trying to work with the City of Boise on a stadium downtown.
“The challenge is that you were landlocked (downtown),” he said. “Expansion was limited. People asked me, ‘where is the USL team going to train,’ and I didn’t have an answer. Simplot Sports Complex is limited because they’re all grass. We’ll need a place to train – and more than one field.”
That gave rise to the six to seven synthetic fields envisioned for Expo Idaho.
“The concept is it’s not just going to be soccer, but field hockey and lacrosse,” Eisman said. “They can be restriped and you could do baseball and football too – any outdoor sports.”
“This becomes the youth sports Mecca for Idaho,” Ahlquist said. “It drives family-friendly youth activity for the coming decades on the river in the heart of the Treasure Valley.”
“Our valley is in dire need of field space,” Dr. Bill Taylor, Idaho Youth Soccer Association President said. “We have one complex that we run all of our league games at Simplot. It’s a fantastic facility – but it’s very limiting as to what we can do there. We could do so much more as far as bringing in travel teams if we had more of a destination.”
Taylor said having synthetic turf fields with lights means they can run more games, and play later at night.
“You could run standalone tournaments here,” he said. “Turf fields can be used in any weather. You can still have overflow to Simplot and other parks around town – but it gives you the base to host a significant tournament that adds field usage into a broader time frame.”
Taylor provided data from the 2019 Far West Regional tournament in Boise. That event brought 244 teams to Boise, with an estimated usage of 27,376 hotel room nights. A study from the Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau found it drove more than $11 million in direct economic activity.
“(This facility) would translate into bringing more teams into the area. Kids and parents like that professional environment. When there is more to do, they will bring more people and make more of a vacation out of it,” Taylor said. “They’ll partake of more of what Boise has to offer instead of just a soccer match each day.”
He said the fields could be a boon to nascent lacrosse leagues, as well as adult leagues and other sports.
Eisman said with another 50,000 square feet of space at Expo Idaho, the site could accommodate indoor activities, too.
“We could do indoor sports during the winter… basketball, volleyball, cheer, basically anything you can think of, there’s an opportunity there.”
In order for any proposal from BVA and Greenstone to move forward, it would need the blessing of the Ada County Commission. Those elected officials started a process last year to launch a Citizens’ Advisory Committee. That group started working through discovery on the site and looking at what might come in the future. The group’s work has slowed due to the pandemic, but picked up in recent weeks.
The co-chairs of the committee heard presentations from leaders in Garden City, Ada Countywide Parks and Waterways, Greater Boise Auditorium District and others. The co-chairs will meet with Greenstone and BVA Friday.
The county records each of the conversations, and the full committee will get a chance to view them. Then, each of the groups will come back for a public meeting on August 26th and answer questions about the site.
“They are gathering information about uses on the site and if they should stay on the site and they will present those options to the public, and the public will weigh in,” Ada County Communications and Outreach Coordinator Briana Bustos told BoiseDev.
Bustos said Ahlquist reached out to Ada County Commissioner Kendra Kenyon, and Kenyon said they weren’t yet ready to hear a proposal from BVA or the Hawks. Kenyon has promised a public process for the future of the site.
“They have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers to figure out what to do at Expo Idaho,” Ahlquist said. “For us, we thought, why not throw something out there that makes sense?”
Ahlquist emphasized that this idea – this vision, won’t be easy, and he’s aware of the potential challenges.
“This is going to be hard,” echoing something he said several times during our interview. “The tenant (the Hawks) is in trouble. What can we do to help them? This is pretty personal for me. I live a mile and a half up the road from the fairgrounds. My church boundary went to the fairgrounds for years. We could have a nicer core of businesses and office and retail for Garden City. This could be a phenomenal addition for our valley and the community.”
This year, two county commission seats are up for voters – those held by Diana Lachiando and the empty seat vacated by Rick Visser this spring. With the advisory committee’s process still rolling, and an election around the corner, Ahlquist and Eisman realize answers may not come fast. But Eisman hopes they can show progress in order to show the baseball leagues the Boise ownership has a plan.
“I don’t need a shovel ready project approved before the elections,” Eisman said. “What I need is a community commitment… need non-binding letters of intent that there is a will here.”
“At some point you’re going to have a reality check, then that’s your real come to Jesus of ‘can we do this or not’,” Ahlquist said. “Would it be better to wait until after COVID? Yes, but we don’t have that luxury because of baseball.”
GBAD executive director Pat Rice told Greenstone and BVA approached the agency via board member Kristin Muchow and asked to come present, which they did during executive session this week. The groups didn’t bring a formal proposal forward.
Greenstone’s reps circled the agency a number of times during the earlier series of proposals to locate a stadium in Boise. New Boise Mayor McLean has said the city does not support tax collars for a stadium project, and pulled $3 million in funding set aside for the project and redirected it to affordable housing.
Rice told the Ada County group earlier this month that any part his agency plays would have to follow Idaho State Code.
“For the stadium itself it would depend on what part we would play,” he told the group’s co-chairs. “You can’t cherrypick what the statute allows us to do. I talk about ‘build operate maintain manage and market. That ‘and’ is key. The supreme court ruled against Pocatello in 2010 — where the supreme court said you can’t cherrypick one of those or two of those, because of the word ‘and.'”
Ahlquist said their intention is to meet that ‘and’ requirement.
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“Anything that involved them, that would be the intention. They would be fully involved. This would be a GBAD property,” Ahlquist said.
The Auditorium District currently has about $23 million in the bank – but some of those funds are set aside for a variety of purposes, including a contingency fund currently being tapped to support the Boise Centre’s continued operation during the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rice said the District has roughly $10 million to $11 million it could potentially invest in a project.
GBAD gets its funding primarily through a 5% tax on hotel room stays within its borders – an area that encompasses most of Boise, all of Garden City, and portions of Meridian, Eagle and unincorporated Ada County. The Expo Idaho site lies within its borders.
“This meets their mission. It drives travel business and heads in beds and is part of a larger community initiative,” Ahlquist said. “It’s outside of (downtown Boise), and there’s an argument about ‘why are you not doing something that’s not just in the central business district?”
Rice said the District would meet next week to talk about its bonding capacity, which has been impacted by a drop in revenue due to fewer people staying in local hotels, as well as fewer events at the Boise Centre.
But Ahlquist stresses that the funds from GBAD are only a very small portion of what is needed.
“There are also private dollars that are going to go into it, even on the stadium itself,” he said. “The real ask for GBAD within its mission, is to take some of the room tax that they are collecting – a tax that they collect from visitors, not residents. It just makes sense. If they say no to this… it’s probably a lot harder.”
Earlier this year, Concerned Boise Taxpayers, which challenged the stadium at its second proposed site on American Blvd. in Boise, told BoiseDev they had concerns about the Expo Idaho site too.
“It could be a better location if it happened to end up at the fairgrounds, but not using property tax dollars,” board member Bill Ilett said in January. “We are still have concerned if it is GBAD funds. Those are tax dollars, that’s coming from hotel tax money.”
Right now, there’s no formal proposal — just the vision BVA, Greenstone, and Agon outline. Ada County has been working through a process with its Citizens’ Advisory Committee on the site – a project delayed by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hawks representatives will appear in front of the advisory committee later this month to answer questions from the group. GBAD’s Pat Rice said BVA and Greenstone could present to that board at its next meeting in September.
Youth soccer’s Taylor thinks the idea could be a game-changer for his organization, and for local tourism.
“People love coming to a place where they can play their games at night and under the lights – or be near a pro team,” he said. “It will be a destination.”
Ahlquist said to fully build out the project, it could take years to fully finish. Everyone we talked to about the idea – including public officials and the developers, are aware that this is a tough time to talk about big ideas.
“Everyone’s a little nervous (due to COVID-19), and it’s threading a needle… you’re in a political year and people are afraid,” Eisman said. “I don’t need anyone to (write) a check – but civically, we need to show that people support this.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said MiLB would contract from 120 teams to 60. It may contract from 160 teams to 120