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A 247-acre (100 ha) parcel being considered for redevelopment in Idaho’s most populous county—and one of the fastest-growing counties in the country—is a rare thing. This is exactly what Ada County has in Expo Idaho, an event center and home to the much-loved Western Idaho Fair. As members of a recent ULI Advisory Services panel, we had the privilege of getting to know community stakeholders, studying the site, and recommending to the Ada County commissioners practical steps to best serve the community for generations to come.

The panel—made up of independent, volunteer experts convened by ULI—was charged with analyzing the feasibility of three redevelopment scenarios for the Expo Idaho site, all of which were proposed by a Community Advisory Committee following a yearlong process that included public engagement. The panel assessed those scenarios, plus recommended a fourth to illustrate how Expo Idaho could accommodate a variety of uses while generating significant public benefit for Ada County and the larger Treasure Valley region.

Our recommendations to the county were guided by the maxim “Preserve. Celebrate. Connect.” Redeveloping Expo Idaho presents a generational opportunity and demands careful consideration and a big vision. There is enough acreage to provide a variety of uses for a diverse and growing community. Now is the time for and—not or—thinking: there is much more to give than to lose. This is at the heart of the site’s legacy: the potential for public benefit at a redeveloped Expo Idaho is enormous, and unlocking it will require short-term tactical steps, long-term strategic planning, and prudent and responsible public investment.

There is a lot of interest in the Expo Idaho site, which in turn has generated a lot of media interest. We want to clarify the panel’s recommendations, which provide for many opportunities to the local community.

First, we want to stress that the county does not need to make every decision regarding the future of Expo Idaho in the next year. To attempt such a great task now places the legacy project at risk. The county merely needs to make foundational but short-term tactical decisions, such as the following:

  • To assuage fears and encourage unity, communicate clearly with stakeholders about the continued presence of the Western Idaho Fair at Expo Idaho.
  • Modify Expo Idaho’s governance structure to give decision authority to an “election-proof” body in order to ensure that the project can proceed over the coming 10 to 35 years with stability and consistency that extends beyond election cycles.
  • Commission the necessary market and economic-impact studies needed to make long-term funding decisions.
  • Study and secure public funding sources, in particular those required to move Ladybird Park.
  • Actively manage upcoming floodplain boundary changes, including ensuring that the proper experts are engaged.
  • Complete a preliminary site master plan to act as the guiding document for future development, leaving flexibility regarding specific uses at this early stage.

Our tangible recommendations for ordered steps, enumerated in these bullets, would establish the foundation for the generational project to be realized over the long term. Each of these foundational steps mitigates risk and establishes a precedent condition for further development on the site—including public uses. Those recommendation also set up the “keystone project” of the larger master plan and development—relocating Ladybird Park. Regardless of the eventual development program, the panel concluded that moving this park would likely be necessary to unlock the site’s potential.

Situated at one of the busiest intersections in Greater Boise, the site is underused and not optimal for a park. Moved to the other side of Expo Idaho, adjacent to the Boise River and the county’s beloved Greenbelt trail, Ladybird Park could meet local demand for open space, provide public benefit within a floodplain that otherwise cannot be developed, and begin the transformation of Expo Idaho. Moving Ladybird Park is a complex process involving approvals from and coordination with the National Park Service, but based on our study, we found broad agreement on this move.

Next, there is a widely acknowledged need for housing in Ada County. The panel observed many low-density parcels in the immediate area that could also be redeveloped as housing. While we did not take a position that this site should not be developed as housing, the availability of other parcels is in part the reason why the panel did not specifically urge housing at the Expo Idaho site.

The panel also did not make a recommendation either to expand or replace Memorial Stadium, home of the Boise Hawks baseball team. The panel offered both options as potential pathways forward while noting the significant opportunities and risks of both scenarios. The panel therefore recommended that the county commission a detailed market study before entering into any agreements, specifically because future decisions regarding public investment in a stadium warrant a detailed economic impact analysis and robust public processes, both of which were beyond the scope of the panel’s assignment.

The costs for any redevelopment project are often extensive. Every scenario we considered for Expo Idaho will require capital investment. Doing nothing will also require capital investment. We estimated that moving Ladybird Park and transforming it from an underused area to a riverside gem would require upwards of $75 million. Renovating existing Expo Idaho structures and building new facilities would cost still more.

The panel encouraged Ada County to explore the diverse funding resources available for Idaho counties because planning ahead will create better financial outcomes for the taxpayers and stakeholders as well as maintain the site in optimal condition for the public.

Our recommendations included extensive lists of potential public and private funding sources. While local governments have found creative ways to fund improvements like these, leveraging tax dollars should generate the maximum possible public benefit. Just as every homeowner must borrow to create a loving home for a family, municipal leaders have at their disposal tools to invest in projects to create public benefits for generations. Prudent and responsible fiscal management does not mean incurring zero financial debt. In fact, investing too little can accrue debts of deferred maintenance, functional obsolescence, and underuse by the public.

As is often the case with the redevelopment of a large public asset, the future contains more questions than answers. This is appropriate. Ada County is growing, and the situation in three, five, or seven years may look very different from what we see today.

With Expo Idaho, Ada County has the opportunity to take its place among the leading stewards of public lands nationally and develop a diverse and multipurpose asset that can be an economic engine and a cherished gathering place for generations to come.

SARAH SIELOFF, senior planner at Maul Foster Alongi, was chair of the Advisory Services panel, and DAVID ARMITAGE, director of asset management at Heartland, was a panel member. Panelists were chosen according to their experiences with similar sites in other cities, as well as their specific expertise in architecture, planning, public/private partnerships, master-planned development, and operation of exposition centers and fairgrounds. A final written report of the panel’s findings will be available later this year, and a video of the panel’s June 24 presentation is available now.