West Ada

Meridian eyes hotel tax, hopes to turn Downtown energy into results

Rick and Julie Valenzuela own and operate Rick’s Press Room Grill and Bar on Idaho Avenue in Downtown Meridian. They opened the business nine years ago.
Rick and Julie Valenzuela own and operate Rick’s Press Room Grill and Bar on Idaho Avenue in Downtown Meridian. They opened the business nine years ago. doswald@idahostatesman.com

Rick Valenzuela doesn’t want downtown Meridian to turn into Downtown Boise 2.0.

Valenzuela doesn’t have anything against Downtown Boise. He even likes some of the innovations Meridian is borrowing from its neighbor, such as an ongoing project to turn Idaho Avenue — where he and his wife, Julie, run Rick’s Press Room Grill and Bar — into a pedestrian- and bike-friendly restaurant and bar corridor similar to Boise’s 8th Street.

He thinks a proposed auditorium district like Boise’s, which brings in money for event venues by taxing hotel stays, would be a “great thing.”

But Valenzuela doesn’t want his city to copy Boise. Meridian needs to build its own identity, he said.

“We’re living kind of in a New Jersey-New York atmosphere here where whatever Boise does, Meridian tries to emulate, and it’s nothing new,” he said.

They see this as another opportunity, basically, to get more heads in the beds.

Clint Shiflet, member of a committee looking for ways to improve downtown Meridian, on hotel owners’ response to a proposed new auditorium district

Valenzuela is among a rising group of business owners, government officers and economic development types hoping for a sustained transformation of downtown Meridian. A lot of these people describe it as “energy.”

“It’s hard to put your finger on any one thing. Just this growing vibe, that entrepreneurial spirit ,” said Mayor Tammy de Weerd, who also serves on the board of commissioners for Meridian Development Corp., the city’s urban renewal agency.”

GROWTH VS. PARKING

If there’s agreement on the general direction, though, there’s a lot of different opinions on the details of what Downtown needs.

Some of them might come in conflict someday.

Valenzuela wants Meridian to bring a few annual events, maybe a music festival, to downtown. Most of all, he thinks downtown needs some “high-density” housing.

“Because that’s what people want right now,” he said. “They want to live on top of a place, go downstairs, get something at the market. High-density, affordable apartments, condos is where you need to start to get a core of people down here.”

De Weerd wants to see more businesses open.

“I do believe that you need to have jobs in your downtown before some of this other activity can germinate successfully,” she said.

That’s all OK, Doug Segali said, as long as the streets and parking are right. The owner of Back Door Grill, located inside The Busted Shovel bar on the northeast corner of Main Street and Broadway Avenue, hopes Meridian avoids traffic messes that bigger cities deal with.

Segali said he doesn’t like Downtown Boise’s parking situation. He really wants to keep crime at bay.

“That’s what made me move from Southern California,” he said. “When the problem starts to come — because it does when you grow — (the response should) be more proactive instead of, ‘Let’s ignore it.’ Because that subculture does hurt you — your business and everything else.”

Segali, who’s married to a Kenyan woman, said he’d like to see more family-owned Downtown businesses that represent a variety of cultures.

FIRST STEPS

A couple of years ago, the city of Meridian hired a consultant to perform an economic development audit on the city. The audit identified three needs for downtown: a hotel and conference center, a performing arts center and a business incubator or tech center.

The city already has crossed one of those items off the list. Last May, Rick Ritter and his partner, Sarah Pokorney, opened New Ventures Lab in the former Meridian City Hall. The lab is similar to a business incubator. Ritter and Pokorney offer entrepreneurs space to operate their businesses and an opportunity to rub shoulders and bounce ideas off people who might know how to solve problems that come up.

Today, New Ventures Lab rents space to seven companies that employ 30 people, Ritter said. Five other members use an open co-work space in the building. Ritter said he’s put about $40,000 of his own money into upgrading the building. Neither he nor Pokorney has drawn a salary yet, but they think they’re on the right track.

So does Bruce Chatterton, Meridian’s director of community development. The next step, Chatterton said, is to focus on securing a hotel-conference center or a performing arts center. That might take more time — a fact Chatterton openly acknowledges.

“You have to have patience with downtown, with any downtown setting,” he said. “The dynamics are healthy.”

There’s no firm estimate on the size of a possible Meridian auditorium district tax. The nearby Greater Boise Auditorium District charges a 5 percent tax, which pays to operate its convention center.

‘SO MANY COOL THINGS’

Late last year, Meridian put out request for proposals from developers interested in taking on one or both of those projects. No responses came back.

In follow-up conversations, developers told the city they saw too much risk in the projects, Chatterton said. That doesn’t faze de Weerd, who found lessons in developers’ responses.

“I don’t believe ... that there was no interest,” she said. “We’ve heard the interest. I just think that we need more dialogue (with city residents and the public).”

Whatever decision-makers do, Valenzuela said, he hopes they involve downtown Meridian’s business owners. A lot of owners — himself and Julie Valenzuela included — are too busy to attend regular meetings. College students and other young people should be involved, too, because they aren’t stuck in mental and cultural ruts, Valenzuela said.

“There’s so many young people out there who have so many great ideas and do so many cool things,” he said.

Meridian’s auditorium option

A Meridian auditorium district, if created, would raise money for event venues through a tax on hotel stays inside its boundaries.

The idea is young, but Mayor Tammy de Weerd said it’s worth a look.

“As our citizens have expressed a real interest in having a vibrant downtown, you need to look at what tools there are available in helping build that vibrant downtown,” she said. “Auditorium districts have found success in drawing visitor dollars to help develop venues that would draw more visitors to a particular area.”

Meridian should soon know just how important these developments are to its people. The city and its urban renewal agency are preparing a poll that will ask city residents if they’re in favor of a new auditorium district or something like it. The official polling will start next month, and results should be available in April.

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