Debate and scrutiny are helping Boise get promising Downtown stadium project right

A rendering of the proposed Downtown Boise stadium at the possible Americana Boulevard site.
A rendering of the proposed Downtown Boise stadium at the possible Americana Boulevard site. City of Boise

Kudos to the skeptics who have pressed the advocates to address questions about costs, financing and economics of a new ballpark and soccer stadium proposed not far from the Boise River at the southwest edge of Downtown.

A stadium would be the new home for the Boise Hawks baseball team and a future minor-league soccer team, as well as a venue for other events. It’s a big commitment, with a big price tag and a big potential payoff. That’s why it’s worth taking the time to get it right.

But getting it right, and not getting it killed by a death of 1,000 cuts, should be the goal. This proposal has too much going for it to not move steadily, if cautiously, ahead.

Some of the complaints against the proposal, such as parking, lights, noise and traffic, can be addressed with planning, technology and mitigation. Some, such as opposition to urban renewal-financed debt or any public spending on a ballpark, are philosophical and can’t be mitigated.

We welcome robust scrutiny, but don’t want to see the skepticism overshadow a vision that could do much to make Boise a more attractive place to live, work and spectate.

Some of the questions that need to be answered in the public hearings to come:

▪  Will the project generate the revenues needed to pay off the public debt?

▪  Is parking and alternative transportation access sufficient to make getting to the stadium a pleasant experience?

▪  What are the safeguards? The city is considering steps to minimize risks to taxpayers: Asking developer Chris Schoen to build the $36 million stadium at his cost, to be reimbursed after construction; to guarantee the first three or five years of lease payments; and to guarantee that lease and other revenues cover Capital City Development Corp.’s debt payments for the first few years.

▪  Will the developer agree? So far, Schoen has been mum, at least publicly.

Assuming we get acceptable answers, Boise citizens could get a $36 million stadium and at least $67 million in related private development. Consider the alternative to welcoming that infusion to this under-appreciated part of town.

It would be relatively easy to plop a project in the burbs, where it would be simpler to find land, would get fewer complaints, have fewer neighbors, create less disruption and get less regulatory scrutiny. So credit Schoen for taking a tougher route on a more complicated proposal. And credit his Greenstone company for a project that fits better with Boise’s overarching goals of increasing urban densities, creating walker-, biker- and transit-friendly destinations, and promoting development that discourages sprawl and its requisite extra and longer car trips.

For people whose objections are philosophical, no response will bring them comfort. But what should comfort others is that those public dollars will build a public asset that will become city property when the debt is paid in 20 years.

We’re also encouraged that the project will benefit an under-used part of town. “Gentrification” is a pejorative way to say “investing and improving.” Whatever is built on the undeveloped and underdeveloped parts of this area will have an inevitable effect on existing businesses and residents.

To that end, we urge the city and Greenstone to ensure that Greenstone’s development around the stadium encourages affordable housing, a mix of uses that welcomes people of all income levels, and incorporates what makes the rest of Downtown Boise unique: locally owned shops and restaurants and less reliance on cookie-cutter and chain businesses.

The most troubling criticism is the suggestion that the Auditorium District might have violated the open meetings law by arranging meetings with the developer; county investigators are examining after a complaint from the anti-stadium group Concerned Boise Taxpayers. Real estate negotiations and development proposals can be tricky propositions for public bodies to handle, which is why the law prescribes procedures and provides for executive (non-public) sessions. If local governments deliberately structured discussions in violation of the law, those should be punished. But simply having officials meet singly with developers is not just common and legal, it’s also a common-sense practice.

Talk of moving the Hawks to a new stadium has been around since at least 2010. And because this most recent proposal has been in the public eye and public discussion for months now, it’s easy to forget that this is a project that has yet to be formally proposed, has yet to get to the application process, and has yet to come to a vote or a public hearing where public vetting takes place in earnest.

And the latest wrinkle makes us less worried, not more, that the process is working. The multiple parties involved are weighing a possible swap: moving the stadium closer to Whitewater Park on vacant property along Main Street, and relocating the proposed College of Western Idaho campus to the Americana Boulevard property now targeted for the stadium.

We’re eager to hear more, and any version of this project still needs to pass the tests outlined above. But the latest proposal shows that, contrary to doubters’ fears, the deal is not greased, and that decision-makers are willing to listen to alternatives.

Robust debate is the sign of a healthy, engaged community that wants to get big decisions right. We’re encouraged that Boise is getting this one right.

Unsigned editorials represent the opinion of the Statesman Editorial Board.

Does the tax bill affect the stadium?

The newly passed federal tax legislation includes a prohibition on using tax-exempt bonds to pay for professional sports stadiums. That was a response to communities around the country that built baseball or football stadiums for professional teams.

Boise city officials say that prohibition does not pertain to Boise’s proposal, because bonds that would finance the Boise stadium would not be tax-free.