Boise & Garden City

Would a Downtown stadium give Boise a popular new venue or a ‘financial black hole’?

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of occasional reports examining the viability of a proposed new Boise sports stadium, its impact on Downtown Boise and how city officials have handled the project.

Dozens of academic studies and news reports agree: Publicly funded stadiums often don’t pay for themselves.

Many fail to create as many jobs as promised or catalyze the surrounding neighborhood.

That research is getting noticed in Boise as at least three public agencies consider partnering with Atlanta-based developer and Boise Hawks co-owner Chris Schoen on a new stadium for baseball, soccer and other activities. The stadium would be located just south of Downtown Boise’s core between Americana Boulevard, Shoreline Drive, 14th Street and Spa Street.

“If this project happens, Boise will have a financial black hole,” warns the website for Concerned Boise Taxpayers, a group leading opposition to the stadium proposal.

That’s possible, said Don Holley, a Boise State University professor emeritus of economics.

“If you’re going to build it as an investment and think that it’s going to pay its way, across the country, they have a poor track record,” Holley said.

Of course, the pro-stadium crowd, which includes Mayor David Bieter and a variety of economic experts, has its own list of success stories — minor-league baseball stadiums around the country that draw healthy crowds and are valued amenities. The most relevant one, they say, is Parkview Field in Fort Wayne, Ind., which was built with mostly public money

Schoen was also the driving force behind Parkview Field. In Boise, he wants to re-create the Fort Wayne process, which resulted in a popular stadium and a resurgent downtown.

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter says he wants the stadium here to be like Parkview Field in that it’s open to the public, much like a city park. In that case, a different standard of success would apply, Holley said, because the stadium would be built “not as an investment but as an act of consumption.”

“We don’t ask, ‘If we build a new park someplace in the city, is it going to pay for itself?’ ” Holley said. “It’s just something that we want there.”

THE PROJECT

The Statesman first reported in February that Greenstone Properties was working on a deal to buy 11 acres near the Boise River from a company managed by St. Luke’s Health System.

Schoen, Greenstone’s managing partner, wants to build a 5,000-seat stadium there for the Hawks, a Class A minor-league baseball team that plays at the 28-year-old Memorial Stadium in Garden City; a professional soccer team; Boise State University athletics; and events like concerts, festivals and conventions. Schoen also runs Agon Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Hawks.

Private and public groups would pay for the stadium’s construction. Greenstone would donate four acres where the stadium would be located and $1 million in cash.

The city of Boise would contribute $3 million. Greater Boise Auditorium District would add $5 million. Capital City Development Corp., Boise’s urban renewal agency, would borrow money to cover the rest of the stadium’s roughly $40 million cost.

Greenstone would build at least $60 million of private development around the stadium, including office, retail and residential space. Property taxes from that development and lease payments from the Hawks ownership group would cover CCDC’s loan payments. The city of Boise would own the stadium after CCDC’s debt is paid off.

That debt is a source of some anxiety. John Bertram, a private community planner and designer who owns commercial and residential property near the proposed stadium, said he’s worried about the financial risk to CCDC. The agency would be left scrambling to cover a $2 million-per-year debt payment on the stadium if the Hawks left town, a minor-league soccer team didn’t come here or other sources of revenue fell through.

At the earliest, construction of the stadium would begin late next year and would be ready for Opening Day of spring 2020.

THE MODEL

In 2006, Schoen bought the Fort Wayne, Ind., Wizards, later renamed the TinCaps — a reference to local folk hero Johnny Appleseed. He built the same thing he’s proposing in Boise: an urban stadium and private development around it.

The similarities between that project and Schoen’s Boise proposal are striking.

Before the Fort Wayne stadium, Parkview Field, was built, the local minor-league baseball team played in an old, suburban stadium about 15 minutes from the heart of the city — just like in Boise. The team was a staple of the city, but its games didn’t draw big crowds, said Kara Hackett, an arts and culture blogger and former reporter who covered downtown development and culture for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.

The old stadium even had the same name — Memorial Stadium — as the Hawks’ current venue.

As in Boise, the Fort Wayne project faced heavy opposition, Hackett said. During its planning phase, she said, at least one survey showed 65 percent of the public was against it.

Fort Wayne residents raised the same concerns that worry some Boiseans now, Hackett said. Those in include noise, traffic, parking, gentrification and whether a new minor-league baseball stadium was necessary or even viable. Hackett was one of the people who thought Fort Wayne didn’t need it.

Hackett said Mayor Tom Henry’s office pushed the project forward anyway. Parkview Field, with a price tag of $30.6 million and a crowd capacity of 8,100, opened April 16, 2009, at 1301 Ewing St. in downtown Fort Wayne.

Attendance has been stellar. This year, the TinCaps drew a record 415,000 spectators to Parkview. Several times, the magazine Stadium Journey has named Parkview the best minor-league stadium experience in the country. Recent surveys show 80 percent of Fort Wayne residents approve of it, Hackett said.

“It really has been extremely successful,” she said. “It’s always the example that gets held up in Fort Wayne as, ‘This is something the people said they didn’t want, but then as soon as it was built, they came in hordes and now it’s the top thing to do in the city.’ 

Schoen has since sold his interest in the TinCaps, though he still owns a retail-office-apartment building behind Parkview Field’s left-field wall. He was also behind a stadium-anchored project in North Augusta, S.C. That stadium is scheduled to open in April.

THE END RESULT

It’s unclear exactly how much private development has occurred around Parkview Field since it opened. Schoen said he wasn’t sure of the number, but he thought it was in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Efforts to verify that claim through the city of Fort Wayne were unsuccessful.

Hackett said the stadium transformed downtown, which was a run-down, crime-ridden area.

“Before the stadium was here, people were afraid to go downtown,” she said.

To grasp the stadium’s significance, Schoen said, you have to think of it as a catalyst for the projects around it. Amenities like restaurants and bars are crucial.

“If you’ve got those, then people want to live there,” Schoen said. “If people want to live there and you’ve got the amenities, companies want to have their office space there.”

IS IT NEEDED HERE?

There’s no guarantee a Downtown Boise stadium would be as successful as the Fort Wayne model.

Critics of Schoen’s plan question whether the Treasure Valley really likes minor-league baseball enough to support a new stadium the way Fort Wayne has supported Parkview Field.

“The Boise/Meridian/Nampa area can barely sustain the teams we have now,” the Concerned Boise Taxpayers website claims. “Experienced people know that our population cannot sustain a new stadium. Our weather means this stadium will sit idle, unused, for much of the year.”

Baseball or no baseball, Bill Taylor is convinced professional soccer matches will fill a 5,000-seat stadium in Boise. Taylor, president of the Idaho Youth Soccer Association, said Boise offers the United Soccer League — a step below Major League Soccer — more assurance that a team will work here than they’ll find in other markets.

He points to recent high-profile soccer matches held in the Treasure Valley, including the Basque Soccer Friendly in 2015, which drew a crowd of 22,000 to Albertsons Stadium; a June 2016 USL match that drew 4,500 paying fans to Rocky Mountain High School despite no marketing; and an indoor soccer match in August that sold out CenturyLink Arena in Downtown Boise.

“The soccer community is dying for soccer,” Taylor said.

A report that the city of Boise commissioned on the feasibility of a stadium agrees with that assessment. The report anticipates average crowds of 2,850 for baseball games and 4,400 for soccer matches.

Taylor believes soccer families played a role in this year’s auditorium district election. After talking to all four candidates, he said, he sent emails to 9,000 people in the area’s soccer community, encouraging them to vote for Kristin Muchow and Hy Kloc, the election’s two most vocal stadium proponents. Muchow and Kloc easily won in a contest that tallied roughly 13,400 total votes. Incumbent Judy Peavey-Derr, who lost her seat, said Taylor did not contact her.

Part of Schoen’s calculation is that the stadium and the activities held there will create an attraction. Hackett said that’s exactly what has occurred in Fort Wayne.

“It’s become like a social event,” she said. “You go to a baseball game on a Tuesday night instead of going to a bar. Or you go to a baseball game instead of going to the zoo. When I used to go, I wouldn’t even watch the games.”

Downtown Boise’s first baseball stadium? Nope.

A proposed new stadium wouldn’t be the first baseball field in Boise’s River Street neighborhood, the area between the Boise River, Front Street, Americana Boulevard and 11th Street.

In 1903, a private group built Riverside Park between 10th, 11th, River and Miller streets — a few blocks east of Greenstone’s proposed stadium. The venue included a roller-skating rink, dance pavilion, band shell and baseball field with a 1,000-seat grandstand, said John Bertram, a Boise community planner and designer who’s been active in that neighborhood since the late 1960s.

Riverside Park’s crowning moment came on July 4, 1906. That’s when Walter Johnson, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, played there. The crowd in the 1,000-capacity stadium was about 5,000 that day, said John Bertram.

Riverside Park hosted professional baseball games until 1912, Bertram said. Youth leagues kept playing there into the 1950s.

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