Read this to avoid a voting mistake on Boise’s legalistic stadium, library measures

Boise voters have the chance in Tuesday’s election to weigh in on the city’s proposed multimillion-dollar new main library and stadium at the voting booth, but it may not be in the way they think.

Rather than a simple yes-or-no vote on either project, voters are being asked to decide whether they will require future elections on the library and stadium.

What does that mean? Here’s what you need to understand Boise’s Proposition 1, the library vote, and Proposition 2, the stadium vote.

What exactly am I voting on?

You’re voting whether to require a citywide election on any library project that costs $25 million or more — that’s Prop 1 — and any stadium project that costs $5 million in public or private dollars — that’s Prop 2.

Why am I voting on these?

Idaho law allows voters to enact city ordinances that have been put on the ballot through the petition process. A group formed last winter called Boise Working Together collected enough signatures to put both ordinances on this fall’s ballot. If they pass by a simple majority, they become law.

Why did Boise Working Together want these ordinances?

Let’s consider the library, or Prop 1, first. A new main library on the site of the existing one has been discussed for years. In June 2018, Mayor David Bieter’s office released artist’s renderings of architect Moshe Safdie’s vision for the building to rave reviews from the City Council.

But the library’s cost was estimated by a consultant to be a lot more than most people had previously expected: $103 million. And it quickly became clear that The Cabin, the historic literary center next door, would have to be moved to make way for the library. Historic preservationists sounded the alarm.

Bieter and the council insisted they would hold spending to $85 million, though they never exactly explained how. They made plans publicly to move The Cabin into Julia Davis Park. As opposition gained steam, city officials quietly commissioned a new estimate last summer which showed that even a library with parts of Safdie’s original plans shaved off would cost $104 million, thanks to rising construction costs.

Bieter decided to call a temporary halt — a “pause” — to the library in August, citing in part that new cost estimate, but by then Proposition 1 was already on the November ballot. He still wants to build it, though.

Prop 1 opponents say the library would not incur any new public debt or require a tax increase. They say it’s better to leave complex decisions to the city’s elected representatives, and a voter-enacted ordinance like this could set a bad precedent.

The language you’ll see on the ballot is long and complex. It boils down to this: If most voters vote yes, Boise will have a new ordinance requiring a future citywide election before the city can spend any money on, or incur any debt for, the proposed library. That election would have to specify the library’s cost, financing method, design, size and location.

Now consider the stadium, Prop 2.

stadium 1.jpg
Atlanta developer Greenstone Properties wants to build a stadium for soccer and minor-league baseball that the city of Boise would own. This artist’s rendering shows how it might have looked at its original proposed location on Americana Boulevard just southwest of Downtown. The current proposed site is a half-mile northwest of this. Statesman file

Atlanta-based Greenstone Properties wants to build a baseball and soccer stadium, dubbed the Boise Sports Park, in the West End.

Greenstone’s managing principal, Chris Schoen, is also the managing partner of Agon Sports, which owns the Boise Hawks baseball team. Agon has acquired a franchise for Boise in the rapidly expanding United Soccer League. The soccer team would play in the stadium once it’s built.

Schoen has worked behind the scenes to acquire land for the stadium between Main Street and Fairview Avenue and between 27th Street and Whitewater Park Boulevard, west of Downtown and near the Boise River. That’s about four miles away from Memorial Stadium, where the Hawks play now.

He’s also working to come up with financing. The latest estimate for the stadium’s cost is $50 million. Although it would be privately developed, it could one day be owned by the city.

Agon would likely make lease payments. Greenstone’s plans call for commercial and residential properties to be developed around the stadium. Schoen’s hope previously had been to use an urban renewal district to tap future property tax revenues from that development to help pay for the stadium. But a new state law this year threw a possible wrench into that.

Greenstone representatives recently have been talking to the Greater Boise Auditorium District, which is legally authorized to build and operate sports stadiums. Neither side has commented about those talks, nor has any plan been presented publicly.

Proponents of Prop 2 say, among other things, that the public should not have to assume the stadium project’s financial risk for a private developer’s gain. Opponents says such projects have succeeded, and benefited the community, in other midsize cities like Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky.

Prop 2’s ballot language, like Prop 1’s, is complex and legalistic. Like Prop 1, the ordinance would require a future citywide election before the city can spend any money on, or incur any debt for, the proposed stadium. That election would have to specify the stadium’s cost, financing method, design, size and location.

How did we get here, exactly?

Boise Working Together maintains that, as a group, it has no official opinion on whether the city should have a new main library or stadium — instead, it just wants voters to have a chance to weigh in.

The Boise City Council had concerns about both ordinances, with members saying the measures were drafted in ways that would invite legal challenges and violate the Idaho Constitution’s provisions delegating administrative authority to city governments. So the council declined to adopt the ballot initiatives outright, as state law allows.

The council passed its own alternative ordinance for the November ballot that would have effectively put the library up for a straight yes-or-no vote. But Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane said the city had no authority to call such an election. That was one reason why Bieter paused the project.

What does a ‘yes’ vote mean for Prop 1?

At its core, a yes vote stops Boise officials from moving forward with any library project that costs more than $25 million unless it passes in a future citywide election.

And for Prop 2?

The same thing: A yes vote stops Boise officials from participating in any stadium project that costs more than $5 million in public or private money unless it passes in a future citywide election. Given the secrecy surrounding the stadium proposal so far, it’s hard to say what might come next whether the ordinance passes or not.

What does a ‘no’ vote mean for Prop 1?

A no vote means the current law does not change. The city would be able to resume moving forward with the library as it had been doing before Bieter’s postponement, if that’s what officials decide.

And for Prop 2?

The same thing: A no vote means the current law does not change. If and when a proposal for the stadium comes out, the city would be free to move forward with the project.

How do I vote?

Early voting runs through Friday, Nov. 1; regular election day hours are from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in Ada County. The Idaho Statesman has a guide on what you need to know to vote as well as voter guides for Boise’s mayoral and city council elections.

You can check out all elections-related stories at IdahoStatesman.com/Election.

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Hayley covers local government for the Idaho Statesman with a primary focus on Boise. Previously, she worked for the Salisbury Daily Times, the Hartford Courant, the Denver Post and McClatchy’s D.C. bureau. Hayley graduated from Ohio University with degrees in journalism and political science.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.
David Staats is business editor of the Idaho Statesman, which he joined in 2004. He has assigned, edited and reported business, politics, government and other Idaho stories since 2006.Get the top Idaho business stories of the week in a free email every Monday morning. Go here, then press the “Select” button under Idaho Business.