Convention Kerfuffle: Greater Boise Auditorium District Looks to the Future 

The future of Boise's convention business unclear

The Greater Boise Auditorium District wants more space, but just where that space will be, what form it will take and how it will be paid for remain sticking points in the grand plans.

From building an entirely new facility, revamping the existing Boise Centre or even tearing down Qwest Arena to put a bigger, better facility in its place, an array of options are on the table, but the group behind them is facing some serious hurdles and opposition.

The motivation behind the issue is relatively simple: GBAD wants to attract what it considers top-tier conventions, something that the roughly 7,000-square-foot Boise Centre can't do. The district wants to create an 85,000-square-foot facility, either by building on a new site between 11th and 13th streets or by adding on to Boise Centre. The most controversial of the options involves razing Qwest Arena and building a state-of-the-art facility.

That option hasn't met with much support.

"The district never, of its own initiative, sought to purchase the Qwest Arena ... the arena has never made money for its investors," said GBAD Board Chairman Stephenson Youngerman at a Dec. 13 meeting.

He paraphrased the investors of Block 22, who own the Qwest Arena: "Our problem isn't that we're going to lose $500,000 this year ... but we're going to lose $500,000 year after year after year."

Still, Youngerman threw his support behind the most ambitious option.

"The proposal to renovate this building has my approval, and I think we should get started," he said before introducing architect Neil Hosford to break down the possible Qwest Arena options.

That feeling wasn't necessarily shared by his fellow board members.

"We're getting the cart before the horse," responded board member Gail May.

Youngerman clarified by adding that by knowing the options, they could better approach the forthcoming report by George Illis and Collier's International on the possibility of GBAD buying Qwest Arena.

Hosford outlined two building options, each with multiple pieces. Option A calls for transforming Qwest Arena into a convention space. Option B would see the arena torn down for a new facility.

Both face physical hurdles due largely to the fact that the floor is sunk 10 feet below grade for the ice rink, which doesn't leave much room for service area loading and unloading. A new facility would need an entirely new foundation--the two story parking garage beneath can't support more weight.

The board wants to look into the arena's options, and Youngerman suggests it could take an extra $10,000 to hammer out the details. Before pulling the trigger, though, the board will wait for the Illis report in January 2011 to make a decision.

But beyond mapping a future for Boise's convention industry, GBAD is still being dogged by the specter of the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Earlier this summer, after supposed budget concerns and an Idaho Supreme Court decision involving a similar auditorium district in Pocatello, GBAD announced it would cut BCVB's $1.3 million operating budget, shutting down the group responsible for marketing the city to the country.

The bureau recently received a grant for more than $400,000 from the Idaho Travel Council, but since it doesn't provide for salaries, the staff is working pro-bono.

A GBAD working group recently finished a report looking into the district's relationship with BCVB.

"Boise Centre can only pay for activities relating to Boise Centre," said Stephanie Astorquia.

The analysis found that using GBAD funds to promote other businesses was unconstitutional, echoing the Supreme Court's decision. While GBAD might want to retain the staff of BCVB, it looks like there's no legal way to do so, short of a specific proposal.

"The district will certainly leave the light on for engaging in the bureau's activities," she said. Astorquia also outlined the failed effort to contact the United States Chamber of Commerce, which GBAD saw as a way to funnel the money to BCVB to keep the bureau alive to promote the Boise Centre as well as the other venues.

"The Department of Commerce, as a matter of policy, precedent or interpretation, does not want to work with the district," said Astorquia.

GBAD Board Member Mike Fitzgerald asked if a different entity could be used to channel money--including the City of Boise or the Idaho Chamber of Commerce--but Karen Ballard, administrator of the Idaho Division of Tourism, stepped in to clarify that the Idaho Chamber has legislative limits on how much it can spend, and that trusting the money to them might be "risky."

Lobbyist and lawyer Michael Kane spoke on behalf of the Pocatello-Chubbuck Auditorium District, the group whose court case set the BCVB-GBAD debacle in motion. Kane offered what sounded like a solution to BCVB's problems: a bill allowing for a definition of advertising by an entity like GBAD, as well as allowing auditorium districts to contract with an Idaho Travel Grant-funded entity without having to go through a bidding process.

While it's too soon to do much with, GBAD board members will look at the proposal at the group's January meeting.

"Your sister district is asking for your support on this bill," Kane closed.

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