Boise Mayor Dave Bieter painted his vision of what the capital city’s core could look like someday during a speech to the Downtown Boise Association last week.
It includes a new or improved main branch for the library, a multi-sport stadium complex and a transportation system that embraces — not just tolerates — pedestrians, bicycles, cars and public transportation. In part, the list echoes what Bieter said the night he was sworn in for his unprecedented fourth four-year term. In that speech, Bieter said it was time for him to take on the city’s really difficult problems, including public transportation and a solution for the main library branch.
Each item brings up a set of financial and logistical challenges. Where would a stadium be located? Who would own it? How can the city pay for a transit system? Should Boise build a new main library branch or renovate the existing building?
These are the kinds of questions Bieter has yet to answer. His spokesman, Mike Journee, said the mayor’s office has a lot of work to do on each proposal before announcing initiatives. There’s no timetable for such an announcement, Journee said.
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A photograph of a light-rail train car appeared on screen as Bieter talked about transit.
That came as no surprise to people who’ve followed his tenure as mayor. Bieter has long advocated for a rail-based transit system in and around Downtown.
The biggest problem is how to pay for it. Depending on the size and type of system a rail system could cost anywhere from hundreds of millions of dollars to more than $1 billion, according to a 2009 study by Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho. The city can’t cover that cost through general fund outlays or other traditional means.
Bieter’s suggestion Wednesday of using local-option tax — a hike on the sales tax rate inside Boise boundaries — as a way to pay for a transit system was another idea that surprised few who know him. Bieter has often voiced frustration with the Idaho Legislature’s refusal to allow cities to put local-option taxes on the ballot.
People who follow Boise politics closely have heard, on a few occasions, the proposal Bieter mentioned Wednesday for breaking the Legislature logjam: a statewide initiative-petition campaign.
The general idea is to collect enough signatures on a petition to force the state to put local-option on a ballot.
Details of the proposal, such as the wording and timing of the petition, are unclear. Journee said Bieter’s office is working out those uncertainties.
Like the transit system, Bieter and some of his allies believe a new stadium for the minor league Hawks would improve Boise’s economy and make it a better place to live.
The city almost certainly wouldn’t pay to build the stadium. On Wednesday, Bieter talked about a partnership with Agon Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Hawks. Two days earlier, Agon President Jeff Eiseman told Mike Prater and Jeff Caves, hosts of local radio station KTIK’s Idaho Sports Talk, that he wants to build a stadium-anchored, multi-use development that would borrow some concepts from a $180 million project his group is taking on in North Augusta, S.C.
“Our goal will be to be Downtown,” Eiseman said. “And you’re talking about a state-of-the-art venue that I’m not even sure people can comprehend in regards to the experience that they have now.”
Eiseman said he’s looked at “a handful of sites” outside Downtown’s central core, though he wouldn’t say which ones. He suggested it could take 30 acres or more.
But where? Upscale neighborhoods lie to the north and east of the Downtown core. Boise State University’s campus is south. That leaves the underdeveloped area to the west, much of which is inside a new urban renewal district.
Even there, though, vacant lots are hard to find. If this project is to take place anywhere near Downtown, it may require buying several lots and tearing down the buildings to make room for the stadium, parking and apartments, office space and restaurants.
The city also is working to solidify a proposal to pay for a new main library branch, Journee said.
This might not be as tough a nut as a new transit system, but it’s still pretty tough. The existing main branch at Capitol Boulevard and River Street is a 1940s-era warehouse that the city converted in 1973. Library technology and practices have changed vastly since then.
4,000Average number of people visiting the Boise Library’s main branch per day
Options for upgrading the main branch range from basic maintenance and safety upgrades that would cost a few million a year for the next decade to a renovation that would cost around $40 million to a complete replacement at more than $120 million.
A bond is one possibility. But approval would require convincing two-thirds of voters to back the bond, and that’s a rare feat in Boise.
A two-year serial levy, like the one Boise voters passed last year to raise $10 million for open space and water quality protections, is another possibility. But the levy would require a steep, though relatively short-term, tax hike that might cause voters to balk.
Stay tuned for details. Mayor Bieter’s annual State of the City speech is coming up soon. He often uses the speech to announce major initiatives.