Downtown real estate broker Bryant Forrester thinks it’s “the craziest idea I’ve heard.”
The executive director of Boise’s urban renewal agency, Phil Kushlan, said “it sounds like it’s a stretch.”
Bill Ilett, managing investor of the Idaho Stampede, said it’s an “asinine” idea that “makes absolutely no sense.”
But Stephenson Youngerman, a member of the Greater Boise Auditorium District board, pitched a plan Nov. 15 to tear down Qwest Arena and build a new 100,000-square-foot facility as the most doable way to bring more convention space downtown.
The board will consider Youngerman’s idea alongside other proposals next month. The five members are trying to build more conference space in Boise, though they and their predecessors have been trying to do that since 1996.
The problem, as they see it, is that Boise has little ability to attract large national conventions and the tourism dollars they bring because the 85,000-square-foot Boise Centre is too small.
A March 2010 feasibility study commissioned by the auditorium district estimated that adding a second convention center would boost direct annual spending associated with conventions from $20.8 million to $29.1 million and total economic impact from $33.6 million to $47.0 million.
The board has failed to deliver on a series of expansion proposals over the past decade-and-a-half. Voters twice rejected bond measures to build a new
convention center, and the district’s latest plan to build a new $40 million hotel-convention center complex has stalled because of cost concerns and financing problems.
Recently, the board has been looking at an expansion that would nearly double the size of the Boise Centre. No cost estimate is available for that yet.
“Sooner or later we have to be realistic about what is possible here,” Youngerman said. “Look at me. I had a full head of hair when I started, and I’ve just been banging my head against the wall.”
Youngerman estimated it would take five years and about $20 million to demolish and rebuild Qwest Arena, which is adjacent to the Centre. But it would allow the district to keep the Centre open during expansion, one of the major drawbacks to simply renovating the building.
Forrester, an agent with Homeland Realty and Urban Concepts, said it just doesn’t make sense, though. Rebuilding on the site of the arena would present a logistical nightmare for trucks unloading off busy city streets, leave no room for future expansion and remove a major asset from downtown.
“I think that’s a rather poor idea,” he said.
Ilett of the Idaho Stampede said the arena’s professional basketball and hockey teams bring about 216,000 people downtown every year, more than Boise
State University football. He said new convention space would, at best, only replace those downtown visitors.
“I just can’t believe the community will let it happen, so I just don’t give it much thought,” he said. “When we’re trying to build a downtown core and we send 200,000-plus people away on snowy evenings, it would just be a knife in the heart of downtown merchants.”
The board currently has $9 million set aside for expansion and expects to be able to add $2 million per year from the 5 percent hotel room tax it collects, meaning a rebuild would be mostly paid for.
Mike Fitzgerald, a board member, was skeptical at first of Youngerman’s proposal, noting the district had talked several years ago with arena owners, and they asked for an “absurd price” to sell the building, while the arena’s sports teams are locked into contracts.
But he said he wanted to hear more after Youngerman said the owners suggested they might be willing to drop the $10 million price tag they proposed several years ago.
“A lot has changed since then,” said John Cunningham, general manager of the arena and CEO of ownership group Block 22. “Our group would at least be willing to sit down and talk about it. The first thing is to get at the table and see if there’s reason to continue talking.”
Cunningham wouldn’t talk about the arena’s revenue, but he acknowledged the slow economy has made business difficult. He said the owners are willing to restart a dialogue to consider a sale.
He said the Idaho Stampede’s contract ends in two years, while the Block 22 ownership group also controls the Steelheads and could move the team more easily. The teams do have other venue options, though he said it’s too early to talk about.
Fitzgerald said he still favored construction of an entirely new convention center on land the district owns between 11th and 13th streets. Board member Gail
May also wants a new facility there, though she suggested selling the Boise Centre to offset some of the costs.
Board chairman Mike Wilson said his choice would be to simply renovate the Centre, while Stephanie Astorquia said she wanted a comparison of all the options side-by-side.