Garden City, Ada County at odds over fairgrounds

Is the property being well-maintained, and what's the best use for this prime real estate?

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comNovember 7, 2013 

One of the Treasure Valley's greatest assets is rotting before taxpayers' eyes, according to Garden City Councilman Mike Moser.

Moser's criticism, in general, is about the Ada County fairgrounds - 240 acres of county property in the middle of Garden City. Specifically, he's talking about the horse racing track, grandstand and related facilities.

"Those paddocks are an environmental hazard, and I've mentioned that to them," said Moser, a city liaison to the Expo Idaho Board, at a City Council meeting in October. "I'm surprised they're still standing."

Click here to listen to audio of the council meeting.

Moser and other city officials would like to see the county follow more of the recommendations of a $160,000 study by Colliers International, a consultant the county hired. Moser says the city needs to get more aggressive about pushing for renovation and redevelopment of the fairgrounds - or move on to other matters.

The 67-year-old, in the middle of his second council term, is retired after working in marketing and advertising for Morrison-Knudsen, Westone Bancorp and Boise Cascade. He told the Statesman that the county's exploration of redevelopment of the fairgrounds inspired him to run for office.

One suggestion was to move the 19-acre Lady Bird Park to the Greenbelt, freeing up the land along Chinden near Glenwood for business development.

"We were all kind of fired up because we thought, 'That's the first step,' " Moser recalled. "But they abandoned that."

He and others are frustrated that little has changed.

"This is sort of my last great speech," Moser told council members Oct. 14. "I've got two years left on my second term. I'd like to leave a legacy of at least something different happening across the street."

Listen to the discussion at the Oct. 14 Garden City Council meeting.

'LACK OF VISION'

There is unanimous agreement among council members and Mayor John Evans that Garden City needs to make a public push for fairgrounds changes.

The discussion was sparked by the county's plan to allow 200 machines that let people bet on old horse races at the Les Bois Turf Club. Council members see only drawbacks to the gaming machines, such as increased traffic, drinking and service calls to the city's tiny police department.

"There's a lack of vision there - not just for us, but for Ada County taxpayers," Councilwoman Pam Beaumont said.

Kathleen Simko said she heard complaints about the fairgrounds while campaigning for re-election.

"It was surprising to me that there was that much interest in doing something else with the fairgrounds, and complaints about the utilization that's currently there," said Simko, who lost her Nov. 5 race.

The Ada fairgrounds does business as Expo Idaho, except during the 10-day Western Idaho Fair each August.

The site includes eight buildings, Les Bois Park (live horse racing) and the Turf Club (simulcast races), Memorial Stadium (Boise Hawks), an RV park, and Lady Bird Park.

The property's size, central Treasure Valley location, and proximity to the river and high-traffic roads make it prime real estate. It's bordered on all sides by Garden City, a landlocked sliver of 11,000 people.

"Garden City's future is drastically limited without something new happening there," Moser said. "It's a doughnut hole in the middle of the city. But I don't think this is a Garden City issue, it's a Treasure Valley issue."

When Rick Yzaguirre ran for county commissioner in 2004, he said he wanted to expand activities at the fairgrounds and "make it more of a year-round facility."

In 2006, Ada County Commissioners called for renovation and redevelopment proposals. They received submissions from seven developers in 2007, but decided to hold off until a consultant studied the property and operations.

CONSULTANT: RACE TRACK NOT A GOOD BET

Colliers International produced its 97-page report in 2008. Its various scenarios for redevelopment included a "clean slate" option to relocate everything and sell all 240 acres for private development. That estimated cost was $40 million.

At minimum, the report said, the fairgrounds needed $5.1 million for "deferred maintenance and upgrades to maintain current income levels." Echoing Colliers' findings, a 2011 study by Boise State University students said Expo Idaho needed to address the "dilapidated" grounds.

The Colliers study said the racing facilities, which opened in 1970, were in the worst condition. It also noted that horse racing at Les Bois lost money.

"All three (scenarios) concluded that the racetrack should be eliminated due to the lack of its financial feasibility and the amount of land it uses," the report says. The racetrack occupies 68 acres, or about 31 percent of the fairgrounds.

At the time of the study, the leaseholder was Capitol Racing. It folded before the 2009 season, and live horse racing went away for three years.

Treasure Valley Racing now has the contract to operate Les Bois. It pays $75,000 a year, plus .25 percent of the total wagered in excess of $10 million.

The county operates Expo Idaho as an enterprise fund. That means it's self-sustaining, with money earned from events - not county property taxes - paying for operations. Drawing in new events, such as the Boise Music Festival, has helped increase revenue.

Expo Idaho provided the Statesman with annual revenue and expense data from 2004-05 to 2012-13. The overall operation was profitable each year, from a low of $197,000 in 2010-11 to a high of $574,442 in 2012-13.

Due to the cost of needed improvements and limited revenue potential, Colliers recommended that a track not be part of the future.

Given that background, Garden City officials say, the county's decision to bolster live racing with the addition of gambling machines was a surprise.

Expo Idaho Director Bob Batista said county officials plan to offer live horse racing as long as they have a private company to organize the races. Racing draws about 3,500 people a day during the 31-day season.

The large number of paddocks at the track are needed to house up to 600 horses. Eighty horses are needed to fill a day's race card, Batista said.

Beyond the money spent at the track, the couple hundred people who work with the horses spend money on tack, feed and food, benefiting the larger economy.

WHAT HAPPENED TO REDEVELOPMENT?

The recession came just as the county was studying future possibilities for the fairgrounds.

Yzaguirre said that before the economy tanked, he imagined relocating the fairgrounds "to the desert" outside of town and developing new uses at the Garden City site. The opportunity never presented itself.

"We haven't had one bona fide contractor/developer come to us and say, 'This is what we want to do,' " Yzaguirre said. "There's been a ton of visioning, but nobody has had the wherewithal to do the project."

Batista, hired in 2000, said his staff came up with a plan for repairs and upgrades after it became clear they would be at the current location indefinitely.

They've painted buildings, upgraded lighting and signs, and are revamping food and beverage facilities. They improved the RV park, contracting with a new operator. A dirt Expo Idaho lot was paved, offering a place for people who want to access the Greenbelt.

Next up: a new entry gate and ticket booths, and a new 5,000-square-foot building for administrative offices. Batista said the estimated cost of those projects is $1.8 million. That work should be complete in 2015.

Treasure Valley Racing will be spending up to $2 million to upgrade the Turf Club as part of its gaming machine installation.

"They're spending a lot of money on infrastructure up front," Batista said. "We want to share in their success down the road."

NO SEAT AT THE TABLE?

Garden City officials approached county officials in June about getting a seat on the seven-member Expo Idaho Board.

The current members are Steve Price, Mary-Michael Rodgers, Jay Larsen, John Mundt, Becky Young and Zach Hauge. One seat is open.

Moser said none of the current members lives in Garden City.

The commissioners rejected the city's request, saying they preferred to allow "any and all citizens within Ada County the opportunity to apply for openings."

Moser said Garden City's message to the county is simple: "Do something better than what you're doing today. Make this property a higher and better use."

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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