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Downtown Boise Convention Center Effort in Limbo Following the Fizzled
 Public/Private Partnership with John Q Hammons

By Cynthia Sewell, The Idaho Statesman, BoiseMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

June 27, 2010--Boise Mayor Dave Bieter recently said getting Boise's new convention center on track is his top goal for the next year. But the organization responsible for funding and building the center may be in no condition to further that goal.

In fact, Bieter's goal doesn't even mesh with the direction the Greater Boise Auditorium District has been taking. Bieter wants the existing center expanded. The district wants to build a new center nearby on land it bought for the purpose.

And now the district's board has split over whether it is legal for the district to pay for nearly 65 percent of the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau's annual budget. If the district withdraws its funding, the bureau may be forced to close,leaving Boise as the nation's only major city without money for a tourism bureau.

That dispute could keep the convention center in limbo indefinitely.

"As hard as it is for me to admit, with the disarray our board is in right now, I don't see a near future for it," Auditorium District board member Mike Fitzgerald said. "Confidence in the board to get things accomplished is probably at an all-time low."

The district, which owns and operates the 20-year-old Boise Centre, is governed by five elected officials and funded by a 5 percent hotel-room tax.

It collects about $4 million annually and is sitting on a $9 million reserve -- money intended for a convention center on five mostly empty acres on Front Street between 11th and 13th streets.

That project has been stalled for years. Two elections failed to win voter approval for a bond sale that would help finance construction of the center. Several public/private partnerships fizzled, including one with renowned hotelier John Q. Hammons that collapsed last year after the economy tanked.

Fitzgerald, a Downtown restaurateur, calls the situation a mess.

"To watch this being ripped apart like this for absolutely no reason is just heartbreaking, and it is so unfair to the people who live in the Valley," he said. "This is going to be something, image-wise, that is going to take a long time to recover from."

SHOULD THE DISTRICT EXPAND BOISE CENTRE?

It wasn't always this way.

The district built the Boise Centre in 1990, and that cost has been paid off. The center is steadily booked. It generates enough revenue to pay its operating costs -- one of three such centers in the nation to operate with a positive cash flow, according to a March study commissioned by the district.

But while it is good for meetings, banquets and social events, the Boise Centre is too small and poorly configured to attract large national conventions and events, according to the study.

"We are unable to even bid on about 70 percent of the business out there that would be available to us with a larger facility," Fitzgerald said.

The study estimated the city could use an additional 78,000 square feet for exhibition space and other purposes. The Boise Centre has 85,000 square feet. The report also recommended that a new center include an adjacent hotel.

The Oppenheimer Cos. Inc., a Boise investment firm, has been working with the district to put together a financing plan and secure a developer to build the new convention center and hotel, said Jack Coonce, the board's vice president.

The site between 11th and 13th streets has problems. It is a couple of blocks from the existing center, making it inconvenient for large conventions to use both spaces. It's near where Front and Myrtle streets join the Connector, where auto traffic is heavy and pedestrian access difficult. For these reasons, Bieter says the district should put its resources toward expanding the existing center.

In September, the district expects another report -- on the feasibility of adding onto the Boise Centre.

"That can probably be done with the cash we have. We wouldn't need voter approval," said board Chairman Michael Wilson, a retired insurance executive. "But it is not the ideal situation."

The center would be partially or fully closed during construction, which could affect annual events. Adding a second floor to the existing building still may not provide enough space, Wilson said. Access for large trucks and equipment would remain a challenge.

"It is better than nothing," he said.

SHOULD THE DISTRICT PAY FOR A STADIUM?

The auditorium district is not restricted to building and owning convention centers.

Under state law, an auditorium district has the power to construct and operate "public auditoriums, exhibition halls, convention centers, sports arenas and facilities of a similar nature."

Some people are thinking about other ways to spend the district's growing cash reserve.

Bieter recently met with Wilson and a representative from the Boise Hawks to discuss building a new baseball stadium near 30th Street.

Meridian's economic-development arm has tried to entice the Hawks to relocate to Meridian. Bieter intends to conduct a feasibility study for a multipurpose stadium, said Bieter's spokesman, Adam Park.

"GBAD and the Hawks are both considered as potential sources of funding for a future multipurpose stadium, but no formal plan has been put together," Park said. "The higher priority right now is to secure direction on the convention center."

Wilson and Fitzgerald, who are on opposite sides of the debate over the visitors bureau, agree that the board has little interest in a baseball stadium.

"A baseball stadium does almost zero to attract guests into hotel rooms, which is where our tax comes from," Fitzgerald said.

SHOULD THE DISTRICT BUY QWEST ARENA?

Another proposal is for GBAD to buy Qwest Arena, adjacent to Boise Centre. That hasn't gained traction, either.

"The owners have no interest in turning it over to the district, and the district would be handcuffed because the Qwest Arena would come with the contracts of the professional sport teams," Fitzgerald said. "Trying to get new business into the Qwest Arena around the dates of those professional teams is absolutely impossible."

Fitzgerald said he prefers to work with Oppenheimer to bring the new convention center to fruition on the 11th/13th-street site.

If that doesn't happen, the district should take a "legitimate look" at lowering or suspending the 5 percent hotel tax, Wilson said: "We shouldn't be adding a million dollars a year to our cash without any real plan."

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428

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To see more of The Idaho Statesman, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.idahostatesman.com

Copyright (c) 2010, The Idaho Statesman, Boise

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