Monday, June 15, 2015

What's the status of the Event Center?

The ground at Snake River Landing where the Idaho Falls Auditorium District hopes to build its event center.
In a community where “bond” is considered by many a four-letter word, the people in charge of the Idaho Falls Auditorium District know they have their work cut out for them.

Right now, the district has roughly $4.5 million in the bank, collected from donations and the bed tax local hotels have been paying since voters approved the district’s formation in 2011. In normal real estate terms, that much money might be enough for a down payment on a $35 million facility. But this isn’t a normal real estate deal.

“We didn’t anticipate it would take as long to get anything done,” said Bob Everhart, who directed the campaign to get the auditorium district approved by voters and now sits on the board. As someone who has probably taken more questions about the event center than anyone, he said he hears two main concerns.
  • Will it affect property taxes?
  • Will taxpayers be stuck with a white elephant if it fails financially?
No one’s property taxes will go up, he said. The auditorium district collects enough money to pay off its indebtedness, and revenues from the bed tax have been growing. At the board’s April 8 business meeting it was reported that revenues were up 11 percent over the previous year. Everhart said he expects even more money to be coming in once the Home2 Suites by Hilton at Snake River Landing opens in late summer.

If the auditorium district were to ask voters to approve the issuance of bonds those bonds would be paid off over time not with property taxes but with money collected from the bed tax. Communicating that message would be essential to getting a yes vote. Likewise, if the event center were to fail financially, Idaho Falls taxpayers would not be on the hook. The city has no liability. “The law says an auditorium district cannot fall back on any governmental entity if it fails,” Everhart said.

Dave Lane, the district’s executive director since January, says several things have to be done before ground can be broken. First, the 22-acre parcel at Snake River Landing, which has been donated by Ball Ventures, has to be annexed into the city of Idaho Falls. That matter is coming before the Idaho Falls Planning and Zoning Commission at its meeting Tuesday, June 16.

Dave Lane, the auditorium district's executive director since January.
If the Planning Commission makes a favorable recommendation to the Idaho Falls City Council -- there's no reason to expect it won't -- and the council votes to annex the land, the next issue is road access. The plan calls for one entrance from Event Center Drive, to extend from Snake River Parkway over the Battle Canal. A western entrance will come in from Pioneer Road, which is at the moment two lanes of old, county blacktop winding between Pancheri Drive and Sunnyside Road. It will need to be widened at least, and how the work will be paid for is still being discussed.

Lane said he has had one meeting with the Bonneville County Commission and got the impression that they were eager to help. “My sense is that there aren’t too many people who don’t want the event center,” he said.

As city manager of Blythe, Calif., before he came to Idaho Falls (his children and grandchildren live here), Lane said he has a lot of experience with bonds. “There have been cases where I’ve had to break it down by asking people whether they would be willing to give up two sticks of gum a day to pay for something that would benefit the community, but this doesn’t even involve that,” he said.

As for other sources of funding, there are naming rights options. “There are major businesses in town that would literally like to see their name in lights,” Lane said. Other business owners are simply interested because they think an event center would be good for their business.

Though nothing is final, the district board has had talks with Elmore Sports Group, which runs Melaleuca Field and the Idaho Falls Chukars, about operating the event center. Under such an arrangement, the business would be run by the operator, who would be responsible for the business’ viability.

It has been 20 years since Idaho Falls community leaders first started talking about building a “comprehensive multi-purpose complex in southeastern Idaho.” Those were the words used in 1995 by a group calling itself the Snake River Valley Events Center.

The plan at that time was to build a facility that could host trade shows, rodeos, concerts and sporting events. It was to be on 10.2 acres north of Idaho Falls, on land that H-K Contractors was willing to donate.

Driven by the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce, boosters determined the best way to move forward was to form an auditorium district, legally enabled to collect a “bed tax” of up to 5 percent from people staying at local hotels. The matter would have to be decided in an election by a simple majority. What followed in early 1999 was a public war of words, the opposition led by AmeriTel, a Boise-based hotel chain that argued the tax would hurt its business and drive customers elsewhere. The measure failed, 6,386 voting no to 5,766 voting yes, and the event center backers regrouped.

After nearly 10 years of study, another election was scheduled for May 2011. This time the organizers opted to hold the vote in a much more narrowly defined area — mainly Idaho Falls — and it passed with 63 percent of the voters in favor.
The U.S. Geological Survey HARN marker from 1959

By 2012, board members were talking about breaking ground the next year. The Idaho Falls Planning and Zoning Commission recommended the plat and annexation, but before the matter got to the City Council it hit a snag over a U.S. Geological Survey High Accuracy Reference Network (HARN) marker. Embedded in lava rock in 1959, the marker was the central reference point for survey lines in central Bonneville County, including the lines established to make sure the Gem State Dam wasn’t shifting from where it was built in 1985. USGS rules dictate that it had to be kept clear, which presented a problem as it lay exactly where the entrance to the parking lot was to be located.

One of Lane’s first tasks as executive director was to find the person at USGS who could get the marker moved. He was also aided by the USGS’s adopting Global Positioning System technology, rendering old brass markers obsolete. The matter has been settled, and the reference point has been moved to west of Interstate 15. In fact, the USGS has asked for the marker so it can put it in its museum in Washington, D.C.
The proposed layout for the event center