The Right Time, The Right Place 

"I bet a lot of you thought this day was never going to happen."

Tommy Ahlquist wanted 15 minutes with Mayor Dave Bieter.

"I panicked," Bieter told Boise Weekly.

Ahlquist--the chief operating officer of Gardner and Co. and driving force behind the Eighth and Main Tower--has had nothing but good news for Bieter lately. But Ahlquist's call to the mayor's office was in 2011, before Gardner and Co. had broken ground on the tower that would fill "The Hole" at the corner of Eighth and Main streets.

"And given our lousy history with 'The Hole,' I was worried," Bieter recalled.

Ahlquist reassured hizzoner that the Eighth and Main Tower was still a go. Instead, he wanted to talk about something new: the possibility of purchasing the U.S. Bank Building, building an underground multi-modal transit center at the foot of the 19-story tower and, perhaps, providing the solution to a dilemma that the Boise Centre had faced for two decades--inadequate convention space.

Nearly three years later, Ahlquist, the mayor and the Greater Boise Auditorium District Board went public with what was one of the best-kept secrets in recent memory: Gardner and Co. has designs to construct new convention and meeting space on the south and west sides of the U.S. Bank Building and the auditorium district would purchase or lease the space, dramatically increasing its capacity. Additionally, the new space would trigger a remodel of the existing Boise Centre into a much bigger exhibition facility. GBAD officials said the project is expected to be completed in 2016.

Gardner and Co.'s desire to expand its footprint in downtown Boise was a key factor in the announcement, but citizens know all too well that if such an agreement was to be forged, the GBAD board needed collaboration that it had rarely seen in the past few years.

In fact, the GBAD board was in near-meltdown in 2011, with members accusing one another of ethics violations, constant disagreements with the city's own convention and visitor's bureau, and very public rumblings of dissolution. But between 2011 and 2013, one by one, GBAD board members were either ousted by voters or resigned from office.

"This has been a long, long process for several of us," said Pat Rice, executive director of the Boise Centre.

Rice should know. Since taking his post in 2001, he has had to serve different incarnations of the GBAD board that were nearly dysfunctional.

That was then.

"I had a sense that when this new board came together, they would have their eye toward action," said Bieter, who openly endorsed the successful elections of many of the current GBAD board members.

"I bet a lot of you thought this day was never going to happen," said GBAD Vice Chairman (and Idaho Rep.) Hy Kloc at the Jan. 30 expansion announcement. "Today's board is a cohesive, collaborative and productive group. We may not see eye-to-eye all the time, but we've pulled together."

While it was ironing out its differences, GBAD continued to rake in tax and fee receipts from a 5 percent hotel room levy, now totaling nearly $15 million.

"By the time we're ready to pay [for the expansion], we'll have $21 million in the bank," said GBAD board member Judy Peavey-Derr, who outlined the letter of intent which conveys the auditorium district's intention to purchase or lease the convention space from Gardner and Co.

Specifically, Gardner will be constructing a building on the south side of the U.S. Bank Building, which will house a 15,000-square-foot ballroom and a 7,000-square-foot commercial kitchen. Additionally, a building on the west side of the U.S. Bank Building (where a parking lot currently sits), will include 14,000 square feet of meeting space and 7,000 square feet of so-called pre-function space. Plans also call for an enclosed walkway connecting the new meeting spaces, across the Grove, to the existing Boise Centre.

"Ultimately, we would like to remodel [the Boise Centre], to open up this space so that we can house larger exhibitions," said Peavey-Derr. "We'll probably do this in phases."

And while GBAD is counting on having nearly $21 million in its bank account by 2016, it also owns another valuable asset: a five-acre vacant block bordered by Front, Myrtle, 11th and 13th streets where, 10 years ago, it had hoped to build a new convention facility.

"That space was too far away," said Bieter. "And if we had entirely remodeled the existing Boise Centre, well, that would have been too near because we would have had to shut down the facility for maybe two years for the remodel. That's why this solution is so elegant."

Bill Connors, CEO of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, heaped additional praise on Ahlquist's Gardner and Co., saying it "solved some of the city's most trying issues" with its plans for a downtown transit center, more convention space and filling "The Hole."

"Tommy, could you now possibly build us a new ballpark a couple of blocks down?" asked Connors. "If so, I will personally nominate you for the Nobel Peace Prize."

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