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Boise and Baseball

BoiseHawksStadiumColor8-17-10-1It is likely good news that the Boise Hawks baseball team has a new Major League affiliation. At first blush, the Hawks’ four-year development deal with the Colorado Rockies makes more sense than the former relationship with the hapless Chicago Cubs. The Cubs never seemed to pay much attention to Boise and it’s been amazing to me that one of the most popular franchises in the great game (not withstanding 100-plus years of World Series futility) never figured out how to help market the local team. Just for example, you can buy any kind of Cubs’ merchandise in any shopping mall in the country, but not at Memorial Stadium.

The Rockies seem like a more natural fit, geography included.

A new, more engaged ownership group also seems to be a positive sign. The previous ownership of the Northwest League team were the worst kind of disengaged, absentee landlords. It’s no secret that they have been shopping the team for some time. Here’s hoping the new owners follow up on initial promises to breath new life into the organization and get really engaged in the community.

But what about a new facility? New ownership can help bring new focus to the decade-long conversation about the need for a new ballpark in Boise, but the underlying dynamics impacting a plan for a new sports venue really don’t seem to have changed very much. I hope I’m wrong.

With full disclosure, I’ve been riding this “new stadium” hobby horse for a long time and I continue to think the logic speaks for itself – secure professional baseball (and maybe soccer) for the long-term, create a new multi-purpose entertainment center, revitalize a neighborhood that needs some love, and create more local economic activity. If only it were that easy.

As I’ve written in the past, local governments in Idaho have been placed in handcuffs by the state legislature and the Idaho Constitution. The ability to support and finance local projects in Idaho is extremely limited. The miners and cowboys who wrote the state Constitution wanted to make certain that the state – and local governments – operate on a cash basis, so Idaho mostly does. The ability to create a special taxing district or levy a tax on entertainment tickets or rental cars, the types of financing tools available in most other places, just doesn’t exist in Idaho. In order to get a project like a new baseball (or soccer) venue off the ground – assuming there must be a role for government – requires a near immaculate conception of united interests. A city, a redevelopment agency, an auditorium district, and a private developer must align interests to pull off a four-way bank shot of financial and political support. It rarely happens and never will happen without local political leadership.

For a long time I’ve thought that the Northwest League with teams from Vancouver, B.C. to Boise, from Spokane to Eugene would do almost anything to keep a team in Boise. zwhillsborobaseball098jpg-bd16f1c282f8ce34Southwestern Idaho represents a large market by minor league baseball standards. Boise is a sports town. There is a track record. But, the announcement this week that the Hawks will have new owners and a new Major League affiliation for four years, while good news, may also represent the last chance – really the last chance – for professional baseball in Boise.

Here’s why: In the season that just ended, the Hawks had the second worst attendance figure in the Northwest League. Boise narrowly kept out of the attendance cellar by besting only the Tri-Cities at the turnstiles. Spokane, with an older, but lovely facility, lead the league in attendance, as it often does. The Indians drew in excess of 100,000 more fans than Boise and actually had one less home game than the Hawks. The newest team in the League – Hillsboro, Oregon – drew 50,000 more fans than Boise and won the league title for good measure. Hillsboro, a bedroom community west of Portland, has a spiffy new ballpark that came about when nearby Portland opted (perhaps wisely) to be a soccer town. Without a new facility in Boise, baseball’s importance will continue to decline right along with the league’s patience for a large market with a shrinking fan base. There is nothing inevitable about professional baseball staying in the Treasure Valley, particularly when other places can  and – as Hillsboro has shown – will step up and create exciting venues where fans want to go.

Here’s hoping the new Hawks’ owners sharpen up their promotions, create new engagements in the community, and do what the previous owners never did – put a monetary commitment and not just a rhetorical one behind a new facility. And here is also hoping that some local political leadership finally emerges to knit together the necessary coalition of interests that keeps Boise a baseball town. Local elected officials do this all the time in other communities and you can bet that it won’t happen in Boise unless local officials decide a new facility and new opportunities for professional sports is a real priority.

Just Google “new baseball parks” and you’ll find, among others, that Kokomo, Indiana has a 4,000 seat stadium under construction. Kokomo? Yup. And the team that will inhabit that new stadium next year won’t even have a relationship with a major league team.

What was that Joni Mitchell song? “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

Out of Sight, But Important

For a state that hates government so much, Idaho sure has a lot of it.

Idahoans have single purpose districts for airports and hospitals, sewer systems and mosquito abatement. Idaho has government “closest to the people” to handle fires, irrigation, highways, cemeteries and auditoriums. Idahoans hate government so much that they often make it largely ineffective and remarkably inefficient – maybe that is the point come to think of it – by hiding away a five-person board over here and a special purpose taxing district over there.

While the state legislature has been busy creating all this government at the local level, remember these are the same folks who regularly memorialize Washington, D.C. on the inherent evils of a distant and menacing government, state lawmakers grant almost no real authority – as in taxing authority – to Idaho cities or counties. The state constitution places severe limits on government debt and local option taxation has been so unpopular in the legislature for the last 40 years it might as well be a Stalinist plot. There is no funding source for local transit service. Want to build a new library or police station? For the most part, Mr. Mayor and City Council, you have a choice – either save your money or beg the taxpayer for super majority approval to levy a bond. The legislative and constitutional constraints are so severe that the City of Boise had to lead the charge to change the state constitution a while back in order to expand parking at the Boise airport; an expansion that will be paid for entirely from revenue derived from folks who park cars to use the airport. Before the change, which had to be approved by voters statewide, even that type of “user fee” revenue couldn’t be used to upgrade airport facilities.

When you consider the various restrictions on local government’s ability to make investments in brick and mortar it is suddenly obvious why we build so little in the way of local infrastructure, and Idaho is, don’t forget, a state where local control is sacred, until it isn’t.

Lacking the tools that are common in places as politically conservative as Oklahoma City and Ozone, Tennessee – 37 states have local option taxes – Idaho cities are left trying to make the most of what few tricks they can pull from a tiny hat.

Here is a brief tour of around the hat. Boise has a city government with certain limited powers to collect property taxes to finance public services. Most of this revenue is devoted to police, fire, library and general government services. To advance downtown development the city years ago created a urban renewal agency, now known as the Capitol City Development Corporation (CCDC), a quasi-local government agency also with  very limited authority. For instance CCDC has developed and owns most of the parking structures in the downtown area and can use tax increment financing to further certain types of development within its established boundary. In 1959 the legislature authorized and Boise voters approved what became the Greater Boise Auditorium District (GBAD). This additional local government creature of state law is completely separate from the city and from CCDC. GBAD does have a dedicated source of revenue – a hotel/motel tax on folks who visit Boise and spend their money in the capital city. GBAD, within certain limits, can spend this money  – currently several million in cash – on “public auditoriums, exhibition halls, convention centers, sports arenas and facilities of a similar nature.”

That’s just about the sum total of scattered and very limited infrastructure “tools” available to any Idaho city.

If all this sounds a little like Afghan tribal politics you’re getting the idea. The city has a mayor and an elected council. CCDC has a board appointed by the Mayor with approval of the council. The city and its urban renewal agency have, to a degree, overlapping membership, but separate staff. GBAD has its own elected board, elected of course from a “district” that has different boundary lines than the city or the redevelopment agency. In a perfect world all these “units of government” would get together, agree on priorities, find a way to maximize the meager resources the control freaks in the legislature have granted them and build some things to create an even better city. But, they haven’t and as a result Boise hasn’t built much in the way of major public infrastructure in many years.

For years the city has had a wish list of public projects, including a new main library, a second neighborhood library at Bown Crossing, a street car system and a new multi-use sports facility that could be home to minor league baseball, soccer, high school sports and community events. The city has made nominal progress on these infrastructure priorities and not for lack of desire, but rather for lack of money.

GBAD has long advocated an expanded downtown convention center and has continued to bank money against that prospect even as doubt-after-doubt has been raised about the wisdom of such a move, particularly in the location the district has reserved for such a building. The expansion idea also lost steam while GBAD board members engaged in a nasty, protracted and distracting public spat about funding for the city’s convention and visitor bureau, a spat apparently now resolved. What remains is the question of what exactly GBAD wants to do with its money and authority, which brings us back to local quasi-governmental entities that are mostly out of sight, but still important.

To put it bluntly, the only local entity with a guaranteed source of revenue, albeit with a limited mandate on which to spend those resources, essentially has no plan for what to do with its money. Does it revisit the idea of a larger, if not optimally located convention center? Does it try to expand at its current site? Does it engage in planning a multi-purpose sports facility? (Full disclosure: I have advocated for the stadium approach.) Or does it, as some are now suggesting, find a way to financially support a downtown theatre space that might work in the old Macy’s department store building? Or…what? And more importantly what does the community really need and want?

On May 21 voters within the auditorium district, again the boundaries are different from the city, will vote to fill three of the five seats on the board. If history is a guide a couple of thousand voters will make the decision and, again with history as a guidepost, the district will quietly fade out of sight without the necessary debate about community priorities. It would be a shame. I’d like to know what each of the candidates thinks are the district’s priorities and just how they might approach getting in sync with those who should be their downtown playmates. Such a conversation in front of an election might give the community a sense of whether any consensus can be found on anything.

I would obviously be delighted to have a robust community debate about the wisdom and wherefore of a public-private approach to a new sports facility for baseball and soccer, but if not that idea – what?

Other cities are on the move. The city of El Paso, Texas – not my idea of a robust and economically powerful place – just began work on a new downtown stadium that will house a Triple-A team next year. Morgantown, West Virginia and Richmond are working on similar projects. San Diego is working on a convention center expansion and Phoenix has completed its expansion. Oklahoma City re-invented itself over the last decade with a ballpark, a convention center and other major public infrastructure.

GBAD built the Boise Centre more than 20 years ago and it has clearly become a major community asset, but ask yourself what else has the community really gotten behind since the Morrison Center was sited on the Boise State University campus back in 1984, nearly 30 years ago? Great cities build great public assets. It was easier in the days when the legendary urban developer Robert Moses waved his fist and a public facility was created in New York City. It’s admittedly much more difficult when the tools are scarce and the few tools you have are so widely dispersed.

Idaho’s convoluted and fragmented system of local government entities almost  ensures that nothing much will happen unless all the local players find a way to get on the same page. As a new nation we long ago ditched the unworkable Articles of Confederation in favor of a government able to make decisions and levy taxes to pay for those decisions. Such an elegant solution seems beyond the state legislature’s capacity. Instead one of the most conservative legislatures in the nation has given us the curious reality of more government than we want and less government than we need. And when all this government can’t agree on much of anything that is precisely what we get – not much of anything.

Pay attention to the GBAD election. It might be a chance to get something done in Idaho’s capital city.


A New Stadium

A Vision of What Could Be

Bob Uecker – “Mr. Baseball” – best known now as a broadcaster, movie star and funny guy, wasn’t much of a major league ball player. Uecker was a lifetime .200 hitter, but he’s been living off the jokes he makes at his own expense for years. Still jokes aside, Uecker had a couple of pretty good seasons in a Boise Braves minor league uniform back in the 1950’s.

Uecker hit .332 in Boise in 1958 and smacked 21 home runs in only 92 games. One of the ex-Boise Braves funniest lines strikes me as a perfect entry point into the community conversation about whether Boise should embark on a plan to site and build a new, multi-use stadium that could be a much improved home for the city’s current professional team, the Boise Hawks.

Uecker once said, “I led the league in ‘Go get ’em next time.'” Boise is on the ragged edge of having to say, “We’ll get ’em next time,” because without a serious and doable plan to improve its baseball venue the city will be without professional baseball sooner rather than later.

Memorial Stadium, the team’s home since 1989, is aging, undersized, under concessioned and has first base seating that during a hot August night is close to unbearable. In short, the stadium isn’t the kind of venue successful minor league organizations call home any longer.

Look around the country at what’s happening in communities where a stadium has been the centerpiece of a community effort to revitalize, renew and recreate. Dayton, Ohio has a wildly successful Class A team in a great facility that recently established the all-time record for consecutive sellouts. Oklahoma City used a ballpark to jump start the rehabilitation of an old warehouse district. You can grab a drink and a steak at Mickey Mantle’s steakhouse next door to the stadium after a game. Louisville recently built a fine new arena to house University of Louisville basketball and the project has offered a major boost to the city center.

Closer to home, the Yakima Bears of the same Northwest League as the Hawks, are planning on pulling up stakes and moving to Vancouver, Washington next summer. Milwaukie, Oregon, a Portland suburb, is moving ahead with a ballpark plan in order to lure a Class A team.

Last week, Bill Connors of the Boise Chamber and I, along with a sizable group of civic and business leaders, launched the Better Boise Coalition to help push the new stadium concept through its next phase. The Coalition will underwrite a site evaluation study that should complement the feasibility study the City of Boise recently completed.

I’m sure we’ll hear from the “don’t do anything, ever” crowd of naysayers and that’s fine – everyone gets an opinion. Here’s mine: Boise needs professional baseball and needs to aspire to eventually attract a Triple A franchise. We’ll never get there without displaying a level of community engagement and commitment and without a first rate facility. A multi-purpose facility fills a multitude of needs, not just baseball. High school teams will have another venue for regular season and playoff games. The Hawks ownership, and to their credit they want to stay in Boise but just need a better home port, has said they’re interested in a minor league soccer team.

You can anticipate the usual voices saying government should have no role in any of this, but that just ignores reality. Think of any of the community assets that make Boise special and you’ll find government fingerprints on everyone – Bronco Stadium, Taco Bell Arena, the Morrison Center, the Boise Centre, the city’s new libraries. Sure private money is critical in many such investments, but government has to be a catalyst or such things just don’t happen.

I hope we don’t wake up in a couple of years realizing the opportunity has been lost and pull a Bob Uecker. It’s going to ring pretty hollow to say, “hey, we’ll get ’em next time.” Next time is now.


No Little Plans

What Next for Boise?

An election that is normally an afterthought for most residents of Idaho’s capitol city takes place Tuesday and, while the five people who run the Greater Boise Auditorium District (GBAD) are not likely to dramatically alter the development arc of Boise anytime soon, the higher than normal visibility attending the race will be a signal of some kind about Boise’s future.

And, the signal, I dare say, is not over a fairly petty issue of how to fund the city’s convention and visitors bureau, which has become a distracting sideshow obscuring the much bigger fish that should be frying in Boise. GBAD runs the state’s premier meeting and convention space and has been struggling for years to determine how to expand.

The stakes for Boise in Tuesday election and beyond, it seems to me, boil down to two very different options: does Boise move boldly ahead with a new wave of public and private investment similar to what took place in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s or does Idaho’s largest city become content to settle in as simply a nice place in the west, but without quite the guts to become a great place?

When I came to Boise a long time ago, the fall of 1975, the city was a sleepy state capitol with a decaying downtown and some modest aspirations. When I think of the changes in the intervening 35 years, beyond the obvious population growth and a general move to the suburbs, I think of what has happened to make the city a better, more attractive place not only to live and work, but a place able to attract significant new growth and investment. Hardly anyone who lives in Boise would say it’s not a nice place. A good parks system, a fantastic river (and mostly underappreciated greenbelt), a mostly attractive and engaging downtown, open space in the foothills for hiking, biking and dogs. For many, the outdoors defines the place and that’s great as far as it goes. But truly great cities are also investment magnets. Bricks and mortar, innovation and aspiration count for a lot in great cities.

I reflect on what wasn’t here when I arrived: the Morrison Center, a world-class concert and performance venue built in 1984; the Boise State Pavilion (I still have trouble with the Taco Bell label) built in 1982, a space that regularly hosts concerts and NCAA basketball; and  the Boise Centre, the state’s largest convention and meeting space built in 1990 and where, because of its popularity and utility, it is increasingly difficult to secure a date for your local, not to mention out-of-town event. Beyond these three essential public facilities, not much in the way of public investment (outside the Boise State campus) has taken place in Boise in 35 years.

In terms of private investment, the last major construction downtown, not counting condo development, was the Banner Bank Building, completed in 2007 just before the economy nosedived, and BoDo, the south of downtown shopping, eating and entertainment center. Of the other, newer downtown buildings, the Wells Fargo Building at 9th and Main is of 1988 vintage, the U.S, Bank Plaza dates to 1978, while the Grove Hotel and Qwest Arena came along in 200o. Currently, when thinking about big privately funded civic projects, only the Simplot family’s JUMP project is actually on the drawing board.

I have this notion, reinforced by a little travel, that great cities are defined by great public buildings and venues. If that is true, with the obvious exception of the marvelously renovated Idaho Capitol Building, Boise is still a bit of a cow town.

[I’ll offer up all my disclaimers here: I chair the city’s library board, am a 16 year season ticket holder to the Boise Hawks, just joined the board of the Downtown Boise Association and have worked in the past for the auditorium district and the city. In short, I have lots of connections to Boise, care about the place and my bias here is pretty obvious – Boise has a chance to be an even better place, if it wants. But, it has to want.]

The city’s main public library is squeezed into a re-purposed plumbing supply warehouse. While the city deserves great praise for adding neighborhood libraries in recent years, there can be little debate that Boise needs a bigger, vital, new main library; a public center of the community that makes a statement about the city, its values, its energy and its aspirations.

The Boise Centre may be among the best operated meeting facilities in the country and regularly meets or exceeds its financial targets, but its not of a size to attract major national meetings, trade shows and conventions.

Prior to 1975, Boise hadn’t had minor league baseball in a long time. For two years the Oakland A’s had a Northwest League team here, followed by the unaffliated Boise Buckskins in 1978. In those days baseball was played at a high school field where fans weren’t able to hoist a beer. Imagine.

Aging and increasingly inadequate Memorial Stadium was built when baseball returned in the late 1980’s and it has neither the amenities nor the seats to be considered anywhere close to the class of the league. Securing a long-term future for minor league baseball in Boise simply requires a better ballpark and it ought to be part of a larger effort to revitalize an entire neighborhood.

Just to be clear, minor league baseball teams are moving all the time. The Yakima Bears, another Northwest League team, said last week they want to move to as yet unbuilt ballpark in Vancouver, Washington. The deal will require money from the club owners, the corporate community and the country. As one baseball backer in Vancouver told the Columbian, “This is just a huge opportunity for this community. This is how communities get on the map. This is how communities grow.” Indeed.

Think about a Boise of 2015 or so with a new main library on par with Salt Lake City or Nashville. A world-class convention venue to attract big events and big money. Expanding the existing Boise Centre or building a new facility is about as close to a “build it and they will come” proposition as exists. And then add a near downtown ballpark – Oklahoma City has one for example, as does Reno – and configure it to host minor league soccer, high school football and – one day – AAA baseball and Boise starts to act like a bigger league city.

Sound fanciful? It wouldn’t be easy and will take some urban courage. The business community will have to think bigger than it normally does and so will local elected officials. The state legislature has decided that Idaho cities can’t be trusted with the usual tools of urban economic development like local option taxation or transit funding, so a carefully drawn strategy will be required.

The Morrison Center required a public-private partnership to become reality. When I first came to town a fight was brewing over where to locate the building, but leadership and aspiration won out and a great site was chosen along the river. Can you imagine the excellent Boise Philharmonic playing these days in the Boise High School auditorium? Boise wouldn’t be Boise without the Morrison Center.

The Boise Centre was years in the making, but imagine Boise without it today. No big charity auctions and no 700 person crowds to hear a big name speakers at an Idaho Humanities Council dinner. No Taco Bell Arena?  You’d eventually get use to driving to Salt Lake to see an NCAA tournament game or to Portland to see an Elton John in concert. The next wave of public and private investment in Boise is long overdue, but will it happen? Big projects require leadership, excitement and momentum. We shall see.

There is a strange dichotomy in Boise and Idaho, as illustrated by some recent polling my firm (Gallatin Public Affairs) undertook with pollster Greg Strimple and the Idaho Business Review. The state is split, and in some ways Boise seems split as well, between folks who are pretty comfortable with life as it has traditionally been in Idaho and those who have greater aspirations. Maybe that first group decided there was just too much growth in the last two decades of the last century and they now feel more comfortable with the notion that nothing much needs to happen in the foreseeable future. These folks, and every town has them, will likely write the letters to the editor insisting Boise isn’t big enough, or wealthy enough or smart enough to pull off a big plan that builds for a bigger future. Many in this group are in what one columnist has called the BANANA Brigade – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

We’ve already seen this group put the kibosh on serious planning for an urban street car system, for example, which to visitors from Salt Lake or Portland simply makes no sense whatsoever. If we started the planning tomorrow for a new interurban light rail system (we had one of those once long ago) linking Caldwell, Nampa, Meridian and Boise, with extensions to the airport, Boise State and the North and East Ends, we might be able to break ground in 15 years. It takes that long, just ask Seattle. Yet, beyond a handful of forward thinking elected officials there is no consensus for such ambition and certainly no community will.  With four buck a gallon gasoline, ask folks in the Portland area if they made a good decision to build their light rail and street car system back in 1978?

The other group in our population, and I count myself in this number, wonder where the good jobs of the future are going to come from without this type of long-term strategic investment? With a knowledge based economy becoming ever more important and with smart young people taking their ideas and their businesses where they want to live, cities like Boise will need to compete anew for their attention or be content to see them take their energy and ambition somewhere else. Lots of other places as diverse as Oklahoma City and Asheville, North Carolina and as different as Tucson and Austin are in the hunt for a piece of the new economy and the workers of the future. Will Boise decide to really compete?

A new main library, a bigger and better convention center and a multi-purpose stadium aren’t the be-all and end-all in the race to compete, but each would signal a level of ambition and aspiration that would help brand Boise as a western city of the future and not just a very nice place with limited aspirations.

A year ago, former three-term Seattle Mayor Charley Royer was the keynoter for the Downtown Boise Association annual meeting held, of course, at the Boise Centre. Royer presided over Seattle from the late 1970’s to the mid-1980’s and left office hailed as one of America’s best mayors. Royer made a quip during his speech a year ago that has stuck with me. He was referring, of course, to his city – Seattle – but it is a remark that may fit Boise just as well.

“In Seattle,” Royer said, “we do process well. We can chew, but we can’t swallow.” Chewing, to invoke Charley’s metaphor, is what Boise has been doing for some time.

The great urban planner and architect Daniel Burnham offered the correct prescription a century ago, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”