Gardner Co., auditorium district announce Boise convention partnership

Partnering with the auditorium district and transit authority shows the Gardner Co. can do more than construct tall buildings

sberg@idahostatesman.comJanuary 31, 2014 

  • WHAT IS GBAD?

    The Greater Boise Auditorium District was authorized by voters in 1959. It was created to be a tool to boost the Boise economy.

    The district gets its money from a 5 percent tax on hotel rooms inside its boundaries, which surround the Boise area. It operates Boise Centre, a convention venue that opened in 1990, and has studied possible expansion for many years.

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 country’s conventions, said Pat Rice, the district’s 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 nation’s 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 district’s board.

“They are creative folks who found the solution,” Perez said of the Gardner Co. “We’re piggybacking on the private sector’s entrepreneurial spirit and creativity. And good for us for being willing to do it.”

THE MAYOR’S 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 Idaho’s 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 mayor’s 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 district’s 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 district’s 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 district’s ballroom above them.

There’s 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 Valley’s transportation authority would operate the hub.

BOISE’S MINEFIELDS

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 district’s plans advanced as far as an architect’s 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 district’s agreement with him may not have materialized.

“When you know it all, it’s 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, we’re 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 it’s a combination of the right culture at the auditorium district’s headquarters, the right time in the overall economy and a developer with the right approach.

“(Gardner and Ahlquist) didn’t come here like a lot of outside guys do and say, ‘All right, Boise, we’re going to show you,’ ” Oliver said. “They’ve come in and said, ‘Hey, what does the community need? We want to be part of the community. But we’re going to get after it. And that’s what they’re doing, plain and simple. They’ve got a great team of consultants and professionals. They’re not afraid to spend money to see if things work and they’re not afraid to spend a little extra money to make it really nice.”

Ahlquist said Gardner’s goal for City Center Plaza project isn’t 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 doesn’t take a bath because of its partnerships with the auditorium district and transit authority, a lack of profit is acceptable.

LETTER’S IN THE MAIL

The letter of intent that the district signed signaling its interest in partnering with Gardner isn’t legally binding. But that doesn’t mean the district isn’t serious, Rice said.

“It’s full commitment by the district to say ‘We’re moving forward now,’” he said. “Now it’s 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.”

Boise’s 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 couldn’t solve the convention space expansion problem.

“I don’t know how you would quantify that, but just logically speaking, at any time when they expand, they’re going to draw more people to the community,” Carley said. “Any time you draw more people to the community, it’s good economically in the short run, and it’s good (publicity) and exposure and reputation for Boise in the long term, because it’s received exceedingly well by probably 95 percent of the newcomers.”

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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