Seven of the eight candidates for the board of the Greater Boise Auditorium District spoke May 9 at a forum sponsored by the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Control of the district is at stake in the May 21 election. Three incumbents - Rob Perez, Stephanie Astorquia and Peter Oliver - have teamed up to keep their seats on the five-member board. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter has endorsed challenger Jim Walker. The other challengers are Steve Berch, John May and George Tway, who attended the forum; and Noah Bard, who did not, citing health.
The district, authorized by voters in 1959, was meant to boost the Boise economy. It operates Boise Centre, a convention venue that opened in 1990. The district levies a 5 percent tax on hotel rooms inside its boundaries, which surround Boise.
These comments are condensed from a transcript prepared by chamber Public Relations Director Caroline Merritt.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself and why you're running for the GBAD Board.
Rob Perez: I am the president of a bank. I learned that the district has substantial project capabilities, substantial debt capacity. I think it has some relatively transformative capabilities economically. I think I'm uniquely qualified to see it through, owing to my project finance background and management background, to the finance capabilities and understanding what the district can and can't afford.
I think we've made substantial changes working together as a team. There is a great dynamic.
Stephanie Astorquia: I'm a native of Idaho and a Basque. I was born and raised on my family's ranch in southern Idaho. I have a very solid work ethic. I'm a certified public accountant. I was nominated to the board in 2007 and elected in 2009. The board specifically targeted my expertise because of my ability to work with boards and management, help make difficult changes, and help understand the financial information and decision-making information. I recently had an opportunity to bring another person to the board. We attracted Rob Perez's expertise in finance. And then, about six months ago, we attracted Peter Oliver's development experience.
John May: I was also born in Boise, and I wish I was Basque. My entire career has pretty much been based around the hospitality industry, including the last 21 years, where I have been involved as an owner and operator of the Owyhee Plaza Hotel. I spent the last six years as the Region 3 representative on the Idaho Travel Council, which markets the state and gives grants to nonprofits to promote the different regions of the state. In October I completed my second five-year term on the Capital City Development Corp., the urban renewal district for the city. I've also served on the board of the executive committee of the Downtown Boise Association. I feel strongly that the skill set missing from the board is a true hospitality professional, someone who understands what it takes to get convention business to our city in a very competitive market, someone who has been engaged with the district board and convention center activities for over 20 years.
Jim Walker: I'm a Treasure Valley kid, born and raised. I attended BSU on a football scholarship and earned my finance degree. After college, I worked in banking and insurance, and now I'm a captain on the Boise Fire Department, where I've worked for 14 years. I consider myself a team builder. I work with 250 firefighters who have work styles and different personalities. For the longest time the City Council has challenged me to bring them solutions and not problems. When our health insurance benefits were proving to be unsustainable, I got to work finding alternatives. After two years of working with city leaders, actuaries, insurance companies, the state and my membership, I was able to develop the Boise Fire and Police Trust, which preserved our benefits and relieved the city of an unfunded liability.
Steve Berch: I've lived in Boise for 32 years. I've been with Hewlett Packard for 30 years doing strategic planning for multiple divisions as well as business development initiatives. I want to help the board fulfill its responsibility to deliver the greatest possible economic benefit to this community. The current board is falling short. They've described themselves as ineffective and unable to work together. And they called this out in their strategic plan as both a weakness and a threat to the district. I want to help this board make a decision how we expand convention center facilities, not if but how. The board needs to develop a true master plan that looks out 10 to 20 years. I have the skills and experience to help this district achieve great things.
Peter Oliver: I was appointed to the board five months ago. I moved here 21 years ago, but I've been fortunate enough to raise my family here; I have four boys. I believe that we're on the bottom of another long growth ramp. I believe we have a great opportunity through the Auditorium District to contribute to that. My skill set could contribute to that as part of a team. I do not have political aspirations, I'm doing this purely because I love this community.
George Tway: I own and operate a travel agency on State Street, the Tway Travel Co. Prior to that, I was a senior vice president and regional president of Employers Insurance, a publicly traded corporation. My responsibility was about a $200 million budget. I've also worked on the staff of Gov. [John] Evans. I was director of Economic Development and Tourism, which is now the Department of Commerce. I was director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Services. I've traveled the world. I've been to conventions. I know what people are looking for, and I could be an asset to the board from the travel industry.
What is your vision for future meeting and convention space?
Astorquia: Boise Centre does not have adequate exhibit space. Conventions can meet and eat, or they can exhibit and eat. They can't do all three of those things like you can do in a normal convention center. We should have about 50,000 square feet of exhibit space, and that's really the issue that's in front of this board. Space is about $250 to $300 a square foot.
May: I would love to be at or get to the point where we are increasing the size of the facility. It will allow us not only to be more competitive in the current market but also to open up the doors to additional markets. This could be through a new center or an expanded center. But if the time is not right financially, or we do not have the partners aligned, then it's time we should put aside the studying and start working on expanding marketing efforts on our current facility.
Walker: New or expanded convention space has been the focus of the board since 1996. The district has no current partner in the project and limited resources to go at it alone. Since that 2010 study that was commissioned by the board, Boise's lost direct flights, lost hotel rooms. Those are two important factors in attracting the larger conventions and trade shows. I don't think I can support building a bigger box that's going to remain empty.
Berch: In the short term , I'll support expansion of our current convention center facilities if the business case can be made for it. We need to make this decision in the next six months, before Thanksgiving, so we can move on. Beyond that, I would also look at not just activities, conventions, or events that take place indoors, but, I would also look at potential activities and expansions for indoor and outdoor activities.
Oliver: Do we need it? I don't think we should get locked into one thing, but if the demand is there and it is going to provide the greatest return and we can do it, then we should do it in one form or another. It should be in one location, not split.
Tway: The focus should be on utilizing and expanding the present space. About 80 percent of the use is with local groups, not conventions coming in. We need to be able to attract conventions. That means adding a second story on it, adding 50,000 to 60,000 square feet. The district also owns property two blocks down on the other side of the Simplot JUMP center, and if necessary, perhaps we should be building a new convention center down there.