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‘Generational project’: Ada County Commissioners gets recommendation on future of fairgrounds site

Ada County now has a possible road map to redeveloping the Expo Idaho and Western Idaho Fairgrounds site. 

A few months ago, the Ada County Commissioners voted to use a grant from national planning organization Urban Land Institute to convene a panel of experts from around the country to study the site, the proposed development concepts developed in 2020, and how a revamp of the 260-acre site could be paid for. This week, the panel concluded its work and presented its proposal to the commissioners. 

[Ada County, flush with cash, considering property tax cut]

The group’s proposal includes a mix of the three concepts developed by the Citizens Advisory Committee last year with room for a revamped Expo Idaho to host the Western Idaho Fair and other events, more natural open spaces, playing fields, a revamped stadium for the Boise Hawks and a town center with retail, commercial, restaurants and residential development.

“One of the things I am going to ask you to do is to think big,” panel member Nicolia Robinson told the commissioners. “This is a generational project. We need you to put on your wish caps and think of all of the things you’d like to see here 40, 50, 60 years from now.”

Diverse uses = diverse funding

The panelists who gave recommendations to Ada County on the Expo Idaho site. Photo courtesy of ULI

ULI put together a multi-stage plan to develop the project. It estimated it would take between 15 and 30 years to completely build out with an estimated total price tag of $172.3 million in a mix of public and private dollars. 

Panelist Nick Duerksen told the Commissioners there is a range of funding options they can use to pay for the project, including grants for the natural open spaces, contributions from donors to name fields and amenities, partnerships with agricultural organizations, and private developers. 

“There are a lot of diverse uses and an opportunity for diversity in partners and a huge diversity in funding,” Duerksen. “That’s a positive. You don’t always have that.”

Their recommended vision includes moving Lady Bird park from the southwest corner of the property to the northern edge along the green belt to replace the old horse racing stables on-site and the RV Park. It would also include several acres of lighted sports fields for lacrosse, soccer, baseball, and other activities. 

Boise Hawks Memorial Stadium
Boise Hawks Memorial Stadium. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

The current site of the defunct Les Bois Park, which used to host horse racing, would include more natural open space with trails, nooks for bird watchers, and other habitat for wildlife around the existing lake on the property. 

At the center of the property, ULI recommends enhancing Expo Idaho and the site for the Western Idaho fair with upgraded buildings and the potential addition of an agricultural center to feature local food and host educational events. The fair would be shifted slightly to the east, allowing the current midway to be developed into an open space with trails to create connectivity throughout the site and allow for more recreation.

To accommodate all of these uses, ULI also recommended two 400-stall parking garages.

One of the biggest questions on everyone’s minds is the future of the stadium for the Boise Hawks. The ULI panel recommended keeping the stadium on-site, either by revamping the existing one or building a totally new stadium further south on the property to bring it closer to retail. Either option and the mixed-use town center would be developed in partnership with a private developer through a request for proposal process.

A drawing of the proposed master plan for the Expo Idaho Site from Urban Land Institute. Courtesy of Urban Land Institute

“In our research, we looked at the costs, and when we talked about it being a lower cost option, but it doesn’t mean it’s the optimal cost for public benefit nor does it mean it’s the option that generates the most revenue or activation,” David Armitage, a panel member, said. “…We wanted to focus on what the cost would be to do those different things and provide a couple of different options to the commissioners of how to have a stadium on site.”

New government structure required?

ULI recommended changes to more than just the site itself.

Currently, improvements to Expo Idaho are paid for out of an enterprise fund, which runs on the limited revenue from the site itself. In order to push the redevelopment forward, ULI recommended creating a government body specifically responsible for the site. This could be configured in multiple ways, like a joint powers authority, an authorizing or operating commission or even an urban renewal agency.

Cielo Castro, another panelist, recommended the board have a representative appointed by all three commissioners, representatives from Ada County’s cities, as well as subject matter experts. The Citizens Advisory Committee, which met all of 2020 to develop initial proposals, could become the foundation for this board. 

“This will require consistency and vision in order for it to maintain stability over the long term revitalization and development timeline of this project,” Castro said.

Step by step

If Ada County wants to pursue this plan, the first major hurdle will be relocating Lady Bird Park. Because it was funded from a National Park Service grant, federal approval and collaboration are needed to move it, and it will be required to maintain some of the same specs and amenities in its new location due to the grant that funded its initial construction. 

This process could take anywhere from one to three years and ULI recommended hiring a project manager to work on this objective and any of the floodplain development questions that come up on the project due to its location next to the Boise River.

A timeline for the redevelopment of the Expo Idaho site from Urban Land Institute. Courtesy of Urban Land Institute

Next, the new playing fields should be constructed, followed by improvements to the Expo Idaho site, including more marketing to draw more events to the area. Once that is completed, the county should complete its final master planning for the site and go out for a request for proposals to find a developer for the stadium, build the parking decks and the mixed-use town center. 

Armitage said one of the county’s priorities should be focused messaging to make sure the public understands the wins behind the plan and the county’s goal to keep Expo Idaho on site to honor the area’s agricultural heritage. 

“We heard a lot of concerns of potential to lose resources or things of value,” Armitage said. “With those feelings around the fair and the Expo, we feel it would be valuable to guide the psychological leadership to focus on how much we can give to the community. How much can we open and expand to touch the most people and touch the most communities?”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev senior reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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