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Pro soccer in Boise: ‘We have all the right people in our corner already’

The Portland Timbers T2 soccer match at Rocky Mountain High School drew a sell-out crowd of 4,352 people. Photo courtesy of Portland Timbers.

The Portland Timbers T2 soccer match at Rocky Mountain High School drew a sell-out crowd of 4,352 people. Photo courtesy of Portland Timbers.

United Soccer League President Jake Edwards is keen to place a minor league team in Boise. Portland Timbers President of Soccer and General Manager Gavin Wilkinson wants to be involved in a USL team in Boise for his Major League Soccer franchise that is the defending MLS champion this season.

And Bill Taylor, president of the Idaho Youth Soccer Association, says having something in place for the 2018 season is not out of the question.

Edwards said a USL team is likely for Boise if the community can establish a team ownership group and supply a stadium with at least 5,000 seats. USL is the third level of U.S. professional soccer behind MLS and the North American Soccer League.

Taylor is the leading local advocate for professional soccer in Boise. For the past year or two, he has nurtured tight relationships with USL and the Timbers that reached a zenith June 4 in Meridian. That day saw a sellout USL match that drew 4,352 people to Rocky Mountain High School to see the Portland Timbers T2 play the Kansas City’s Swope Park Rangers.

“We have all the right people in our corner already,” Taylor said.

Taylor must delay his stadium and ownership campaign until July because IYSA is staging the 2016 US Youth Soccer Region IV Championships June 20-26 with some 250 teams and 4,500 players from 14 western states.

The Portland Timbers-Swope Park soccer match in Meridian was the first neutral site game in United Soccer League history. Photo courtesy of Portland Timbers.

The Portland Timbers-Swope Park soccer match in Meridian was the first neutral site game in United Soccer League history. Photo courtesy of Portland Timbers.

“We will have serious talks starting in July (with government people and potential investors),” Taylor said. “The energy is legitimized. There is a return on investment now. Now you can go to people who are not necessarily soccer people. Now we just have to go to the next level with our government people.”

Taylor wants to extend the right of first refusal with local people to form an ownership group, but potential ownership does not stop in the Treasure Valley.

“We can then go outside the market,” Taylor said.

Taylor also has government entities willing to listen to stadium proposals, which could involve leasing Les Bois Park from Ada County or bonding from the Capital City Development Corp., which is Boise’s urban renewal agency.

Downtown Boise

Boise Mayor David Bieter declined an interview request about a potential soccer stadium, but he has spoken favorably about a downtown stadium for years, recently at the Downtown Boise Association’s State of Downtown annual meeting.

“Downtown needs a multi-use sports facility,” Bieter said at the DBA event. “I’m convinced that a public private partnership that brings minor league baseball and soccer as well as concerts and other events to downtown will pay great dividends.”

CCDC’s other three urban renewal districts could conceivably host a soccer stadium, CCDC Executive Director John Brunelle said.

Brunelle sees CCDC’s potential role in a soccer stadium primarily as a bonding source if the soccer agency were to partner with either the city or Greater Boise Auditorium District.

Since 2011, the Better Boise Coalition, a volunteer group that wants to build a downtown stadium,  has eyeballed the CCDC West End district near Whitewater Park Boulevard as the likely site for a downtown stadium. But Brunelle said the two likely sites for such a stadium are now owned by the College of Western Idaho, which wants to build a Boise campus, and LocalConstruct, which plans a mixed-use commercial and housing development.

“Those were the sites for baseball they were looking at,” Brunelle said. “If you’re looking for a lot that is vacant or a site that is underused and remove some structures, there would be some options both ways.”

Les Bois Park

Taylor has also showed Edwards and Timbers’ staff the shuttered Les Bois Park racetrack, which could provide soccer with an existing grandstand.

Treasure Valley Racing halted all activities at Les Bois March 20 but the organization still holds the lease on the facility through the end of the year with four one-year options. Once the Les Bois lease is resolved, Ada County, which owns Expo Idaho, where Les Bois is located, sees potential in professional soccer as a future use for the racetrack.

“We’re very much interested in having that conversation,” Ada County Commissioner Rick Yzaguirre said.

The Les Bois Park infield is watered from a well, and parking and concession services already exist for Expo Idaho. The Les Bois Park grandstand seats 3,500 with bleachers adding another 500 seats, and the Turf Club has seating for about 500, said Bob Batista, director of Expo Idaho.

“I’m comfortable in saying we can reach that mark (5,000 seats minimum) fairly easily,” Batista said. “(Soccer at Les Bois) is something I have been personally thinking about as an alternative use for quite some time. For all intents and purposes, you’re going to have one of the easiest locations to get to, and parking is pretty substantial.”

Garden City surrounds Expo Idaho, which also includes Memorial Stadium, where the Boise Hawks minor league baseball team plays. Garden City Mayor John Evans sees more value in locating baseball and soccer in the same stadium.

“We would not have any objection to having the use of (Les Bois Park) as a soccer location,” Evans said. “I’d rather see it utilized rather than sit idle. Ada County has the yes or no on it.”

Taylor has three basic stadium options in mind: an existing facility, like Les Bois;  a new stadium, the idea of which has been tossed around for about five years for Boise’s West End; or the location of a wide open space with freeway access, which describes the Ten Mile Road interchange in Meridian.

Ten Mile Road

Ten Mile Road is considered the largest undeveloped commercial freeway interchange between Portland and Salt Lake City.

The city of Meridian collaborated with private property owners in 2007 to master plan the Ten Mile area at Interstate 84, which remains undeveloped with the five-year-old freeway interchange.

“It’s a vision plan,” said Bruce Chatterton, Meridian’s community development director. “Everyone agrees that nothing has to look like every other interchange in America, nor should it. It doesn’t have to be a couple of fast food joints. The idea is to create another piece of the urban fabric.”

A soccer stadium falls within the spirit of the master plan, he said.

“As far as uses, we’re really flexible,” Chatterton said. “We’re looking at offices, corporate headquarters. We’re also looking at entertainment. We’re open. It could be possible to create a sporting venue with shared parking, offices in the day, sports in the evening … . We’d certainly be interested in having discussions (with soccer people) if there are any to be had.”

Portland Timbers see great promise in Boise

Portland Timbers General Manager Gavin Wilkinson wants to strengthen the team's relationships in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Portland Timbers.

Portland Timbers President of Soccer and General Manager Gavin Wilkinson wants to strengthen the team’s relationships in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Portland Timbers.

The Portland Timbers intend to bring its Timbers T2 minor league team to Boise for more “home” games in 2017 as the Major League Soccer team continues to evaluate placing a second minor league team in the Treasure Valley.

The Boise region could see as many as six to eight Timbers T2 home games next year designed to see if there is a sustained interest in local soccer beyond the one-game novelty of the June 4 Timbers T2 match in Meridian, Timbers President of Soccer and General Manager Gavin Wilkinson said.

“It’s an area we want to be invested in and showcased in,” Wilkinson said. “We want (Idaho soccer) players to look at the Timbers as their home team.”

Major League Soccer, the top U.S. professional league, in May 2015 assigned Idaho to Portland as a homegrown territory to which Portland has the exclusive right among MLS teams to recruit Idaho youths to the men’s Timbers or women’s Thorns teams.

Now the Timbers, Idaho Youth Soccer Association and the United Soccer League have had numerous discussions and visits to Boise to determine whether to place a USL team in Boise and if the team would be affiliated with Portland.

“We think (Boise) can sustain it,” USL President Jake Edwards said. “It can be an independent organization or affiliated with Portland. The Timbers organization would like to be part of it.”

USL has 29 minor league soccer teams, many affiliated with MLS teams. But the Portland Timbers would be the first team to have two USL teams if the Timbers place a team in Boise, “which is what we’re navigating,” Wilkinson said.

“There are so many directions we can go with this until we find out the rules and regulations (about owning two USL teams),” Wilkinson said. “Beyond that, there is not a definite time frame (about basing a team in Boise). Is it going to be sustained attendance and growth? Those are the questions we have to ask.”

Wilkinson and Bill Taylor, president of the Idaho Youth Soccer Association, which organized the Timbers T2 game in Meridian, acknowledged that the game succeeded in a worst case scenario situation. Rocky Mountain High School, where the game was played, does not have convenient access from Boise, Nampa and even much of Meridian.

Yet the game was a sell-out with 4,352, far more than the Timbers T2 draw in Portland, where soccer attendance is “cannibalized” by the Portland Timbers and the women’s Portland Thorns, Wilkinson said.

Beyond that, Taylor said the game was played immediately after the end of the school years as families had already started scattering for summer vacation.

“Our marketing budget was zero,” Taylor said. “This is an acid test for the market. We didn’t get any advertising. Without doing anything, what are we going to get? It was suboptimal timing, very little marketing. It was a massive success.”

 

 Stadium talk
The prospects to build a stadium for professional soccer in Boise is “as high as it’s ever been,” said Bill Taylor, president of the Idaho Youth Soccer Association.IYSA is the principal driver to bring professional soccer to Boise, potentially in the form of a Portland Timbers minor league team.“We don’t have a dollar figure (for a soccer stadium),” Taylor said. “There are so many potential sites we are considering. How to structure this with the Timbers? We are in the process of getting people together who are interested. (United Soccer League) will give us guidance for all the options.”The Better Boise Coalition in a 2011 market viability study for a Boise stadium cited an average cost of $26.7 million for all the short-season minor league baseball stadiums built since 2000. The coalition was founded by Bill Connors, CEO of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, as a volunteer, community-based group to explore the possibilities of building a multi-purpose Treasure Valley sports and entertainment complex.The coalition has 280 to 300 members but has had no “genuine activity” recently, Connors said.

“We long have been interested in attracting a professional soccer team,” Connors said. “I know the Timbers and Sounders have been interested. I know there are a number of Timbers season ticket holders living in Boise.”

A soccer stadium would cost less than a combination baseball/soccer stadium because a baseball stadium has a larger footprint, said John Brunelle, executive director of the Capital City Development Corp.

Tucson built a 2,360-seat soccer stadium for $3 million that opened in 2013 for its USL professional development league team – a level lower than Boise’s prospective team would be. It resembled the Les Bois Park grandstand.

Reno opened the 9,000-seat Greater Nevada Field in 2009 for the Reno Aces baseball team and in 2017 the $50 million stadium will also be home to the Reno 1868 FC soccer team, which will play in the same USL conference Boise seeks to enter.

“Reno would be on the very, very high end,” Connors said. “If you look at many minor league cities that have stadiums, it’s not just about the sports piece. It’s about lofts in the outfield. Almost always there’s a retail component. The Hawks owners are interested in all of those things.”

A combination baseball/soccer stadium has been in talks for years. Boise Hawks ownership did not return calls for this article.

“We would want to do something special, not just something on a shoestring,” Brunelle said. “I’ve heard the number $30 million mentioned. A 5,000 seat family-friendly use. In Boise, if any public funds are used, it has to come with public access and public programming.”

Connors said some minor league stadiums have activities 150 to 200 days a year.

About Teya Vitu

Teya Vitu is an Idaho Business Review reporter, covering commercial real estate, construction, transportation and whatever else may intrigue him in the moment. Join me on Twitter at @IBR_TeyaVitu.