The dream of a mixed-use stadium with baseball, soccer and private development in Boise is far from dead.
On Tuesday, two Ada County Commissioners sat down with Boise Hawks General Manager Mike Van Hise and Chris Schoen, an executive with the team’s parent company Agon Sports & Entertainment, to talk about a new sports complex coming to Ada County fairgrounds. There was no specific proposal on the table, and the commissioners did not commit to partnering with the team, but there was interest on both sides about the future of sports on the site.
The Boise Hawks currently play at the aging Memorial Stadium. Schoen said they are hoping to stay on-site, but if the county’s ongoing planning process for how to transform the 240-acre site doesn’t end up including room for the stadium they will look elsewhere. He said alternative sites include the Department of Transportation headquarters on State Street or somewhere in Meridian.
“Ya’ll’ve got to work through your process, but that’s been our home for awhile,” he said, about the fairgrounds. “We’re comfortable being there. We’d love to be there but if it doesn’t work out there our long term goal is to figure out where (a new stadium can go) in this valley.”
A lengthy process
It’s been a long road for Schoen and his mission to build the Boise Hawks a new home.
For years, he worked on a partnership with former Mayor Dave Bieter to site the stadium and surrounding private development in downtown Boise. But, objections to the project from residents and those concerned with public dollars funding the project fueled a ballot initiative in 2019 that stopped the project in city limits.
While Schoen and the Hawks tried to figure out their next move, the team lost its affiliation with the Colorado Rockies last summer after the league downsized the number of minor league teams. This kicked the team back to the Pioneer League, where it will play against teams in Idaho Falls, Ogden, UT, and Missoula, MT.
A major factor in losing the connection to the Rockies was the Hawks aging stadium, which has been growing attendance at games in recent years. Schoen thinks if Major League Baseball grows the league to 32 teams, Boise could be in play to get back to its place as an affiliate if the team could move into a new stadium. Or, at the very least, the Hawks could be classified as AAA baseball like the teams in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.
Schoen said bringing a new stadium to the fairgrounds, along with other youth sports facilities, mixed use development and open space, could create a major draw to the area and bring in visitors from elsewhere in the pacfic northwest region. He said building partnerships with Idaho Youth Soccer, and other youth centric sports organizations, would bring in teams traveling to Boise for tournaments (and their dollars) who are currently traveling to Spokane and elsewhere for competitions instead.
“I don’t know what ya’ll want to do with everything, but you’ve got room for it and the more youth sports located in one spot and the more shared amenities it synergistically works the best,”
Commissioner Kendra Kenyon agreed, saying attracting more out of town visitors for sporting events is a good way to bring in tax dollars, without the extra burden of more residents moving into the valley. She said the large space and possibility of multiple amenities in one space at the fairgrounds makes it an ideal location for an economic driver.
“I think this location for all the reasons we talked about today is a better location in the long run than a stadium stand-alone downtown,” she said.
Public dollars a necessity
This project can’t be done by private investors alone, Schoen said.
Schoen said his group has built other stadiums around the country, like Fort Wayne Indiana and in Augusta, Georgia, but to pull it off they needed to combine private development and a public-private partnership to get it off the ground. He said the way these deals have been done in other places is they use the development, like retail shops, hotels, and housing, to bring in tax dollars to help pay back the cost of the stadium.
This is very similar to the type of deal Schoen was trying to make with Bieter. There was never a formal proposal with the city, but initial conversations said they would use Boise’s urban renewal agency Capital City Development Corporation to take out bonds that would be repaid with the tax dollars from the private development around the stadium. There would also be a $3 million cash infusion from the City of Boise.
“It’s really complicated, but it’s all of these pieces that got to be committed,” he said, about trying to put together a partnership. “You’re going to have people shooting at you like you’re going to have for the last 7 years we’ve owned the team. Somebody has to see the vision and deliver. It’s hard.”
It’s unclear how many local partners are interested in putting together a deal of this magnitude. The Greater Boise Auditorium District, which runs the Boise Centre and collects hotel occupancy taxes, heard a presentation from the Hawks about this proposal in 2020. But, due to the financial pressures of the pandemic, the board turned down the possibility of funding it.
Planning is ongoing
The county is knee deep in a process to determine what the future of the fairgrounds should look like.
For the last year, Ada County had a Citizens Advisory Committee made up of various stakeholders examine the site and put together a proposal for what could go there. They presented three scenarios, which could be mixed and matched on the site. The ideas included a focus on agricultural heritage and open space, a stadium and a mixed-use town center.
The Ada County Commissioners saw the proposals in January and are considering applying for a grant with the Urban Land Institute for an economic impact study and a financial plan to map out some options and how redevelopment could be paid for. A public outreach plan to determine what the public hopes for in the site is also in the works.
Boise Hawks leadership and developer Tommy Ahlquist presented their vision for the site, including the stadium, retail, housing and other amenities to the citizens advisory board in 2020 as part of that process. Specifics of their proposal were not mentioned in the final presentation of options delivered to the commissioners.
Commissioner Rod Beck said he heard a lot about the fairgrounds during his 2020 campaign. He said people were interested in the future of the site, but he heard more about keeping the Western Idaho Fair at the site than any other possibility for redevelopment.
“I don’t think in this urban area there’s not a piece of property that big all in one in the greater Boise, Garden City area,” Beck said. “You can go outside Boise and see thousands of acres, but they’re way out in the foothills, but I think it’s an enormous asset and at least from my perspective I want to see the best use of that land for our community.”
Kenyon said the studies for the site completed by ULI for the next phase of the project should be done in the next four to six weeks and then the county will put out a request for proposals for development. She said the goal is to create a plan that’s good for the county taxpayers and the community as a whole.
“We’ve got one shot at getting this right, and once it’s done it’s pretty much baked for awhile and we want to make sure it’s what the community wants and we can afford it,” Kenyon said.