Correction: Expo Idaho covers just over 240 acres. Incorrect information appears in this story.
John Evans, the mayor of Garden City, has a vision: One day, the Expo Idaho site at Chinden Boulevard and Glenwood Street will be transformed.
The home of the Western Idaho Fair will become the new heart of Garden City, a vibrant urban center next to the Boise River, invented from the ground up — but with a riverside park and more city amenities.
Such a development could be home to office campuses, stores and homes. It would bring the city new tax revenue, continuing the wave of gentrification sweeping Garden City, visible in developments like the Waterfront District and new housing in the Adams Street neighborhood.
There’s only one problem, and it’s a large one: Expo Idaho sits on a patch of unincorporated Ada County land, surrounded by the boundaries of Garden City, which is itself surrounded by Boise. And county leaders say they have no intention of turning over the 70-acre site.
“I know this topic comes up every six months or so,” said Dave Case, an Ada County commissioner.
The site is ideal for the fair, Case said, because of its location near the center of the Treasure Valley’s population. The county, he added, is deeply invested in the site. It recently spent $2 million in infrastructure upgrades, including an entrance gate and roadways.
Yet Garden City’s comprehensive plan includes a goal to “create a heart for the city.” It proposes exploring a possible downtown there. That’s something the growing community lacks.
“If someone said, ‘I’ll meet you in downtown Garden City,’ where would you go?” Evans said. “We would love to have what you would call a downtown, an encapsulated business and residential core.
“I don’t think a downtown needs to have a city hall in it” — Garden City’s sits in a complex that includes the Garden City Library next to the river on Glenwood Street — “but the point is having a place where you would identify a downtown that’s not a strip along a state highway.”
In a perfect world, the mayor said, a single developer would propose a project to the county commissioners that would include a new site for the fair as part of the deal. Garden City would annex the current site.
Several developers have already expressed an interest in the Expo Idaho property, Evans said. Their ideas have included hotels, stores, entertainment and homes. Sewer, water and roads are already in place, making the site “a smart place for new development,” he said.
Case counters that there are complications. Four decades ago, the county was able to buy the land that’s now Ladybird Park, the 17-acre open space at the corner of Chinden and Glenwood, with federal parks money. Under that arrangement, the land is reserved as a county park in perpetuity.
The county would have to go through a long process, including finding another site that’s the same size and with the same amenities, to change that designation.
A self-supporting site
In addition to the annual Western Idaho Fair, Expo Idaho hosts events throughout the year, Case said. Expo Idaho is a county enterprise fund, meaning it supports itself through revenue from things such as wedding expos, ski swaps, dog shows and more. It’s a good deal for the people of Ada County, Case said: “No property taxes are used to pay for the fair or Expo.”
The future of Les Bois race track, also on the site, is in limbo since the state outlawed instant racing in 2015. That could either delay or accelerate what the county might do with the property, Evans said.
Were the county amenable to letting Garden City annex the property, the process would include a legal survey of the property, identification of the desired zoning and public hearings, said Jenah Thornborrow, the director of Development Services for Garden City. Also, because of the size of the parcel, said Thornborrow, the city would have to develop a master plan.
The first location of the fair, in 1897, was a site known as the Idaho Agricultural Park, near present-day State and 21st streets. The fair outgrew that site and moved in 1902 to the corner of Fairview and Orchard. That site included a one-mile oval racetrack and a grandstand that seated 2,000 spectators. The fair moved to Glenwood and Chinden in 1967.
Anna Webb: 208-377-6431