Lots of developers build towers and rent them.
In many ways, the Gardner Co. has taken on more stubborn problems by agreeing to build more convention space for the Greater Boise Auditorium District and a public transportation hub for Valley Regional Transit. To pull it off, Gardner will have to comply with unfamiliar workplace regulations, payment schedules and a host of other obstacles that will come up because governments and taxpayer money are involved.
Achieving the hoped-for extra convention space would let the auditorium district host 1,000-person events, making Boise a possible destination for 70 percent of the countrys conventions, said Pat Rice, the districts executive director. Today the district can serve as many as 400 people at a time, which means it compete for about 20 percent of the nations conventions.
A private company gives Boise its best chance to make these partnerships work, said Rob Perez, president of Northwest Bank and a former member of the auditorium districts board.
They are creative folks who found the solution, Perez said of the Gardner Co. Were piggybacking on the private sectors entrepreneurial spirit and creativity. And good for us for being willing to do it.
THE MAYORS WISH LIST
Boise Mayor David Bieter joked Thursday morning that if a genie had granted him three wishes a few years ago, one would have been to fill the Boise Hole, and another would be more convention space for the auditorium district.
Gardner and its COO, Tommy Ahlquist, already crossed off one of those items. The company is about to host the grand opening for Idahos tallest structure at the northwest corner of 8th and Main streets, where an unfinished foundation was once known as the Boise Hole.
Now, Ahlquist and Gardner are trying to make the mayors second wish come true. Auditorium district leaders announced Thursday that they plan to partner with Gardner to build 15,000 square feet of ballroom space and 14,000 square feet of meeting space, as well as a pre-function area, commercial kitchen and bathrooms. The district also would renovate Boise Centre, which it owns, converting that meeting, ballroom and exhibit space into about 50,000 square feet of exhibit space. The entire project would cost about $37 million. The district would pay for it through a combination of savings, surplus income and selling off its unused property.
The auditorium districts space would be one component of City Center Plaza, a $70 million development Gardner plans for U.S. Bank Plaza, which the company bought adjacent to The Grove Plaza in August. City Center Plaza would include the nine-story, 206,000-square-foot Clearwater Building kitty-corner from the Eighth & Main building. The auditorium districts new meeting space would be in that office and retail building.
Gardner also plans to put a second building just south of the U.S. Bank tower. The south building, with a footprint of 25,000 square feet, would have two floors of parking and the auditorium districts ballroom above them.
Theres another public-private partnership in the works, too: a 40,000-square-foot public transportation hub that Gardner would build 20 feet under the Clearwater Building. Valley Regional Transit, the Treasure Valleys transportation authority would operate the hub.
Valley Regional Transit has tried for years to build the transit center. Each time its leaders thought they had found the right place to put it, they ran into the same obstacle: No one wanted to be close to the people that congregate in bus stations.
The auditorium district has been trying to build more convention space for even longer. The Boise Centre opened in 1990. Six years later, its staff and elected board of directors started planning an expansion.
The first idea was to build southward, over Front Street and into the property where the Aspen Lofts condominium development now stands.
In the early 2000s, the district bought Parcel B for $5 million. The lot lies between 11th, 13th, Front and Myrtle streets. The districts plans advanced as far as an architects design for a new convention center.
In 2006, 10 years after expansion plans began, hotelier John Q. Hammons and the district began planning a hotel-convention center project for Downtown Boise. That plan hit a wall when the Great Recession hit and Hammons died.
After that, the district vetted and discarded a line of hopeful and ultimately unworkable ideas for new convention space. The mood inside district headquarters turned sour. Shouting matches marred board meetings.
They were stuck, Boise developer Clay Carley said. They were spinning their wheels trying to make it work, and it takes somebody like Gardner, with the vision and the economic horsepower, to say, I get it all, and we can make this work.
Perez said the seeds of the agreement between Gardner and the district were planted when the district finally got out of its own way.
In March 2012, board members passed a resolution that named Parcel B the only location they would consider for a new convention center. If Ahlquist had come along during that period, Perez said, the districts agreement with him may not have materialized.
When you know it all, its hard to be open to other things, he said.
A year ago, the board voted to change its position on Parcel B and consider other locations and projects. The district might now sell that land to help pay for the new convention space.
Peter Oliver, a current board member and cofounder of commercial real estate firm Thornton Oliver Keller, said the idea of partnering with Gardner gradually took shape after the company bought U.S. Bank Plaza in August.
When we first started pursuing this, I said, We have a window to do this. And if we miss it, were not going to have another shot at something like this, Oliver said.
Why are Gardner and Ahlquist closing in on success with projects that have stumped everyone else? Oliver said its a combination of the right culture at the auditorium districts headquarters, the right time in the overall economy and a developer with the right approach.
(Gardner and Ahlquist) didnt come here like a lot of outside guys do and say, All right, Boise, were going to show you, Oliver said. Theyve come in and said, Hey, what does the community need? We want to be part of the community. But were going to get after it. And thats what theyre doing, plain and simple. Theyve got a great team of consultants and professionals. Theyre not afraid to spend money to see if things work and theyre not afraid to spend a little extra money to make it really nice.
Ahlquist said Gardners goal for City Center Plaza project isnt what the company normally looks for, which is return on investment. In this case, he said, the benefit to Boise which, of course, benefits Gardner and its investment here is the more important concern. As long as the company doesnt take a bath because of its partnerships with the auditorium district and transit authority, a lack of profit is acceptable.
LETTERS IN THE MAIL
The letter of intent that the district signed signaling its interest in partnering with Gardner isnt legally binding. But that doesnt mean the district isnt serious, Rice said.
Its full commitment by the district to say Were moving forward now, he said. Now its simply getting into the details hiring the architects, hiring the project managers, working out these agreements, getting into a contract. So the (letter) is a huge deal.
Boises economic cheerleaders hope so. Ever since the district began its search for an expansion, business leaders and elected officials have predicted that more convention space will lead to more people visiting Boise, which will lead to more hotel stays, new hotels, new flights, even more visitors, and so on.
The only lament would be to wonder how much business Boise has lost because it couldnt solve the convention space expansion problem.
I dont know how you would quantify that, but just logically speaking, at any time when they expand, theyre going to draw more people to the community, Carley said. Any time you draw more people to the community, its good economically in the short run, and its good (publicity) and exposure and reputation for Boise in the long term, because its received exceedingly well by probably 95 percent of the newcomers.
Sven Berg: 377-6275