All four of Boise’s public high schools play their varsity football games at Downtown’s Dona Larsen Park. But time is running out on the original deal that moved Boise, Borah, Capital and Timberline into the Boise State-owned stadium, leading fans, coaches and administrators throughout the district to wonder what comes next.
The official line from the Boise School District is it’s happy with its relationship with Boise State and any speculation on what comes next is premature.
But where’s the fun in that?
Let’s speculate wildly. Here are the options for high school football’s future in Idaho’s capital city, including on-campus stadiums for all four schools and some creative solutions.
SIX YEARS BEFORE THE BILL COMES
The choice boils down to this: Should the Boise School District stay at Dona Larsen Park as a tenant or build its own stadium or stadiums? It has six years to decide before digging into its own pockets.
The Boise School District rents the Downtown stadium through a credit from Boise State. That credit started at $1,511,750 when Dona Larsen Park opened in 2012 after a land swap with the university. But it’s down to $648,786 entering the 2019 season, records from the school district show.
At approximately $100,000 a year ($80,000 for rent; $20,000 to $25,000 for parking and security), that credit will run out midway through the 2025 season. And once the credit is exhausted, the district can opt out of its deal with Boise State, district communications specialist Ryan Hill confirmed.
He added it has no current plans to do that, and the $80,000 a year rental rate is contractually guaranteed through 2037.
Either way, the district faces a choice. It never built varsity football stadiums because it never needed them. Boise High moved into what is now Albertsons Stadium full time in 1953. Borah, Capital and Timberline followed as the city grew and always called that stadium home until moving into Dona Larsen Park.
So where does it go from here?
THE CASE FOR STAYING AT DONA LARSEN PARK
Dona Larsen Park opened to fanfare in 2012 after Boise State spent $6 million on construction, and it remains one of the state’s top high school football and track facilities.
Its view of the Foothills and Downtown Boise’s skyline provides a unique setting. It comes with lights and 5,200 seats. Boise State pays for maintenance. And the shared facility keeps all four high schools on equal footing, preventing an arms race.
But most important is the cost. The $100,000-a-year rental price tag may sound like a lot. However, Jon Ruzicka, the activities director for the Boise School District, estimates it’d cost $3.5 million to $4 million to build a new stadium. With four schools, that would cost the district as much as $16 million up front.
Most, if not all, of those schools would need artificial turf to maximize their small campuses. And those fields need to be replaced every eight to 10 years at about $500,000 apiece.
At today’s prices, the cost to replace four artificial turf fields every 10 years ($2 million) would amount to double the 10-year rental and parking fees for Dona Larsen Park ($1 million at $100,000 a year).
It may be cheaper to own your home than to rent one in the long run. But not when you buy four homes.
THE CASE AGAINST DONA LARSEN PARK
Parking remains the No. 1 complaint. Dona Larsen Park only has 69 dedicated spaces, none open to the public. That prevents any doubleheaders and requires the district to pay Boise State to rent a parking lot at the Washington Group Plaza, a 5- to-10-minute walk from the stadium.
Poor sight lines from the stands, bare locker rooms without showers and a sterile environment where no one has a home-field advantage are common complaints. And even though they play in a separate facility, Boise’s high schools can’t play the same day as Boise State’s football team, creating scheduling headaches that require Thursday night and Saturday afternoon games.
That provision even forced a game outside the school district. Capital had to rent Centennial High for a home playoff game against Madison in 2016 because it conflicted with a Boise State home game vs. San Jose State that night.
Officially, coaches and administrators say they love Boise State and value their relationship with it. But it’s hard to argue the Broncos have made high school football a priority after they failed to sign a parking agreement with St. Luke’s before the 2018 season opener — five months after the hospital bought the Washington Group Plaza.
WHERE COULD BOISE SCHOOLS GO?
The dream scenario is on-campus stadiums at all four high schools, but landlocked campuses present a myriad of challenges.
Four of the five high schools in the neighboring West Ada School District sit on 50 or more acres. That extra space allows all of its schools to devote at least 5 acres to a football stadium and track complex with stands on both sides.
That’s not an option for the campuses of Boise (10 acres), Capital (32), Borah (40) and Timberline (45). All four Boise high schools have their football field surrounded by a track for JV and freshman games. But none have stadium lights nor the space to expand into a traditional 5-acre stadium.
That doesn’t mean the district’s hands are tied. The College of Idaho, after all, only needs 3 acres for Simplot Stadium.
The secret? No track, and permanent bleachers dedicated to one side. That allows it to hold 4,001 fans in its permanent stands on just 3 acres, enough for a 5A-level facility.
OPTIONS FOR BOISE HIGH
The district’s Downtown high school finds itself in the toughest position. Washington Street and Franklin Road bound the on-campus football field and track, preventing the school from adding varsity-level bleachers.
The district spent $6.4 million to open the Fort Boise athletic complex in the fall of 2018. But expanding the junior varsity field there is a nonstarter with only slightly more than 2 acres available, even if it removed the dedicated row of parking along Robbins Road.
A pair of 2-acre soccer fields sit on the north side of the complex. Turning that into a shared football and soccer stadium with artificial turf is one option. But that facility would struggle to hold enough parking for a varsity football game.
In the end, Boise’s best option remains at Dona Larsen Park, possibly as its sole tenant.
OPTIONS FOR BORAH HIGH
Borah has more room to work with at 40 acres. But its largely single-story campus eats up most of that land.
The Lions’ current JV field has no room to expand with Aurora Drive on the west and the school’s auditorium blocking expansion east.
The best option remains a 4-acre field behind the school, where Borah practices now. A canal and a JV softball field along the south edge of the field likely would limit it to one set of bleachers on the north side back up against the high school. If it uses a grass field, it could keep the JV softball field in place and install a temporary fence each spring that cuts into a corner of the end zone.
The Lions also could pack up and move to the site of the former Jackson Elementary School 1.5 miles away along South Cole Road. That site hosts Borah’s soccer teams on nearly 5 acres of grass with a 3-acre parking lot.
Borah would need an artificial turf field to support that much use on a single field, though. And limited parking again would pose a problem.
OPTIONS FOR CAPITAL HIGH
A booster approached Ruzicka, then the school’s principal, in 2004 with rough plans for an on-campus Jake Plummer Stadium. But Ruzicka said the plans never advanced past initial discussions.
Capital has some open space to work with, but any stadium expansion would come with trade-offs. A neighborhood sits 30 feet to the east of the jump pit at the JV stadium, either forcing Capital into one-sided bleachers or limited, low-level bleachers on the east side.
Adding any bleachers to the west would require the school to move its varsity softball field. And moving the softball field farther to the west would come at the expense of a practice soccer field.
An artificial turf stadium would allow Capital to move its soccer games out of the public Milwaukee Park next door. But finding practice time for four soccer teams — boys and girls varsity and junior varsity — along with three football teams on one turf field would create a scheduling nightmare, Capital Athletic Director Steve Sosnowski said.
Schools like Rocky Mountain still use grass fields to accommodate practice time for every team.
Creating a shared varsity and junior varsity softball field could free up green space on campus for practices. But Capital would need to add new stadium lights to create enough field time for the softball program’s practices and games, adding more construction costs.
“A lot of things have to be fixed if we are going to move in that direction,” Sosnowski said. “They are fixable, but is it financially responsible? Is there a better option? I don’t know.”
OPTIONS FOR TIMBERLINE HIGH
Timberline’s situation mirrors Capital’s. A neighborhood lies 20 feet to the west of the school’s JV field and track, forcing the Wolves to use a single set of bleachers on the east side. But thanks to advances in lighting technology, Timberline Athletic Director Tol Gropp said it would only need stadium lights on the west side facing away from the neighborhood.
A booster made a rendering of the proposed stadium earlier this decade in an effort to start raising money. It detailed a possible fieldhouse and the existing concession stand and restrooms with locations to add more. That rendering remains in the school’s trophy case, but Gropp said the school never started fundraising.
That plan comes with its own trade-offs, too. Expanding the existing bleachers would require Timberline to find a new home for its shot put pit with no easy solution, and it could eat into an existing row of parking.
Even with separate varsity and JV soccer fields, the school still would need artificial turf because it would have no dedicated football practice field to prevent wear and tear on the playing surface.
The $16 million price tag remains a steep hurdle to climb, one that would be tough to fundraise and likely would require taxpayer help in the district’s next bond.
The school district used its latest bond to pay for the $14.4 million renovation of Boise High’s gym and performing arts center. But Hill described that as a need, citing safety concerns with the old Boise High gym. Four separate varsity football stadiums are a want.
The district does have other options to shave down construction costs, including shared stadiums.
The school district owns 15 acres of unused land near its district office and West Junior High along West Victory Road. And that doesn’t even include a 3-acre, overflow gravel parking lot already at the location.
That’s plenty of space for a shared stadium for two schools, or even a new Dona Larsen Park capable of hosting all four high schools, Friday night doubleheaders or district and state track meets.
A pair of shared stadiums is another option. East Junior High already comes with an artificial turf field and could become the new home for Boise and Timberline. That field already has hosted Boise State football practices as well as soccer, lacrosse and junior varsity football games for Timberline.
East Junior High would need to install 5A-level bleachers on one side because of a nearby neighborhood and has limited parking. But the district could rent the parking lots at Riverstone International and the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation across the street for more space, as it does for the district’s junior high track championship.
West Junior High’s football field and track also sit on 12 acres of green space, giving the district another option for a shared stadium for Borah and Capital.
Boise’s growth will one day require the district to build a fifth high school. It has reserved 50 acres as a potential site south of the airport in the proposed Syringa Valley subdivision, now known as the Locale. That high school remains years away with no bond proposal. But a fifth football program would further compound scheduling problems at Dona Larsen Park, another facet the district has to consider in its long-term plans.
And the elephant in the room — Boise State’s Albertsons Stadium — still remains an option. Idaho players grow up dreaming of playing on the blue turf in the stadium that sits empty for all but six Bronco games and one bowl game a year. But that would require a new round of negotiations between the school district and Boise State.
“What we’ve talked about and what we can do and what we’re planning for is different than what we want,” Ruzicka said. “I’m sure every principal in our district would tell you we would love to have a stadium at our school. I get that. I felt the same way when I was at Capital.
“The reality is right now we’re playing at Dona Larsen and we have that relationship with Boise State. And in the future, we think we’d like to continue that.”