Should Nampa taxpayers subsidize the Idaho Center?
Late at night Jan. 16, moments before he voted with the rest of the Nampa City Council not to sell part of the Ford Idaho Horse Park, Councilman Rick Hogaboam admonished an overflow crowd of horse lovers.
Happy as they were that the council kept the horse park intact, Hogaboam reminded them that the city-owned Idaho Center, which includes the park, loses hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.
Nampa needs your help to make the Idaho Center self-sustaining, Hogaboam told them.
“This has been a sore subject in the minds of lots of Nampa residents for the last decade — the fact that you have an entertainment venue that’s subsidized by taxpayers,” Hogaboam later told the Idaho Statesman.
Those subsidies have been a drag on Nampa’s budget for 21 years. Now, as rapid population growth forces the city to confront big needs like upgrading a sewer plant and hiring more police, Hogaboam wants to ensure the center doesn’t stand in the way.
Event organizers and participants agree they have a responsibility to the Idaho Center’s financial stability. But they also say it’s unfair to look only at operating deficits. There are positives, too.
No expectation of profitability
The Idaho Center opened Feb. 21, 1997. It was the result of a deal between the city of Nampa and the Snake River Stampede, a rodeo founded in 1913.
The Stampede donated land north of Lakeview Park on Garrity Boulevard in exchange for the city’s pledge to build an arena to host the rodeo and other equestrian events. Nampa’s urban renewal agency paid to build it. The donated land is now home to Snake River Elementary School, a Hispanic Cultural Center, a Nampa police substation, baseball fields and a skateboard park.
“I don’t know that there was ever an expectation that (the Idaho Center) would operate in the black,” said Beth Ineck, Nampa’s economic development director. She said government-owned venues usually don’t.
Word of the Idaho Center spread through the horse and rodeo worlds. It became a regular stop for events put on by Professional Bull Riders, cutting horse aficionados, Arabian horse owners and others. The Snake River Stampede occasionally appears on rodeo publications’ lists of top events, partly because of the amount and versatility of space on the Idaho Center’s 90-acre campus.
“The facilities are really, really good,” said Pat Looney, sponsorship chairwoman for the Idaho Cutting Horse Association, which holds early spring and late summer competitions at the Idaho Center every year.
Besides horse shows and rodeos, the Idaho Center hosts concerts, trade shows and sporting events. Big-time acts like Pearl Jam and the Rolling Stones performed there in the 2000s. It competes with Taco Bell Arena in Boise for celebrity performers. Rod Stewart, Kevin Hart, Kenny Chesney and a Journey/Def Leppard concert are among acts booked in the next eight months.
But the center’s balance sheet never reflected its popularity. It has consistently turned to city taxpayers to stay afloat.
‘We can chip away’
From 2005 to 2015, SMG, a Pennsylvania company, ran the Idaho Center for the city. In 2015, the city turned operations over to Spectra, a Philadelphia venue manager. Spectra won a five-year contract with a potential five-year extension.
By all accounts, things have improved. The city’s subsidies were already falling when Spectra took over. Five years ago, the venue cost the city more than $1.8 million. That number has dropped every year since. Last year, the deficit was $754,703. Nampa Finance Director Vikki Chandler said that includes net operating losses, Spectra’s $138,525 management fee and $231,000 performance bonus, and almost $280,000 for maintainence and upgrades.
“We hope we can continue to chip away,” said Tim Savona, the center’s general manager and a Spectra employee. “We’re certainly not making any promises that we can become positive.”
Savona said the center hired an employee whose only job is to sell corporate sponsorships. Last year, he said, the Idaho Center hosted 23 more shows than the 71 in 2015, the year before Spectra took over. He expects an additional 15-20 shows this year.
Event organizers say the venue has become more enjoyable under Spectra’s management. The restrooms are cleaner and the showers are better than they were two years ago, said Pat Looney, sponsorship chairwoman for the Idaho Cutting Horse Association, which holds competitions every year.
Deficits vs. value
The Idaho Center’s economic impact is hard to quantify. The last time anyone tried was 2007, when the city commissioned a study on the benefits of both the Idaho Center and the Nampa Civic Center, a smaller venue near City Hall.
The study concluded that, in 2006, the center accounted for more than $20 million in total economic impact. More than half of that money came from out-of-region visitors like participants in the Snake River Stampede and other horse-centered events. They stay in Nampa hotels, eat in Nampa restaurants, buy from Nampa stores. Their spending produces jobs that put money in the pockets of Nampa residents, even those who don’t attend events at the Idaho Center.
Benefits like that make operating deficits tolerable to some local governments, Savona said.
“It is not uncommon for these facilities to operate in the red,” he said. “If it’s a city- or county-owned facility, they might be very happy losing $2 million a year.”
Horse people mobilize
Last year brought a moment of truth. Two companies that city officials declined to identify asked if the city would sell part of the 38-acre Idaho Horse Park for a food-processing plant.
Sensing new jobs and tax revenue, the City Council on Nov. 20 declared 16 acres of the horse park surplus, expecting to sell it for at least $2.8 million. Some horse events might have been lost. The equestrian community mobilized against the sale.
The council delayed a public hearing on the sale while Ineck worked out a compromise to sell 10 acres instead of 16 in hopes of saving some events. The land was to be sold at auction with an opening bid of $1.7 million — money to pay for upgrades to the aging center. An economic analysis from the Boise Valley Economic Partnership predicted a plant that employed 40 workers would produce $29.2 million yearly in economic activity.
The horse community was unmoved. On Jan. 16, more than 100 opponents filled City Hall at the rescheduled hearing. Many made emotional appeals. They said the Idaho Center put Nampa on the horse-show map. The land to be sold is needed for parking or warming up horses before shows, they said, and losing any part of it would erode the city’s reputation as a horse town.
Shortly before midnight, the council voted unanimously against selling the land. The crowd stood and cheered.
In the glow of the moment, the horse lovers seemed to agree: They would rise to Hogaboam’s challenge and help the Idaho Center become self-sustaining.
Willing to help
A month later, equestrian leaders still say their community will do its part.
Sherri Boardman of the Idaho Horse Park Foundation, which raises money for improvements such as stalls and parking spaces, thinks event organizers would pay more to use the venue, as long as it’s not too much.
“I think all of them are willing to support the park in a reasonable fashion,” she said.
Boardman praised new Mayor Debbie Kling for re-activating the Idaho Center Advisory Commission, a board that makes recommendations on management and strategy for the venue. The commission hadn’t met since early 2015.
Looney, of the Idaho Cutting Horse Association, said her organization will help the Idaho Center bring in more money.
A lot is needed. The center needs investment. Horse-event organizers would like to see improvements like LED lights, more RV parking and new horse stalls. Those things cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, on top of maintenance and repair costs like replacing the arena’s cooling systems — work that will cost the city some $250,000 this year.
Hogaboam acknowledged the venue’s importance as a destination for equestrians, and he wants to preserve its cultural and economic benefits. But he doesn’t want it to come on the backs of Nampa taxpayers, many of whom can’t afford shows the center hosts.
“There are no easy answers,” he said. “As much as it’s great to have Journey come into town, if the ticket’s $150, you have people in our community [who’d say,] ‘I’m not going to that.’ ”