Imagining a New Future for Expo Idaho
Redeveloping Expo Idaho
Fairs offer excitement and fun for kids from 1 to 92. Fairgrounds, however, require large amounts of land, and it can be challenging to keep that land and those assets active and contributing to the public benefit throughout the year.
In June 2021, I had a window into the world of fairground management when I had the honor of chairing an eight-member, interdisciplinary Advisory Services Panel for the Urban Land Institute (ULI). The panel focused on assessing the feasibility of redevelopment scenarios for Expo Idaho. All panel materials, including a summary of recommendations, are available here.
Expo Idaho is the quintessential real estate unicorn: it’s at the intersection of two of the busiest roads in the state. It’s a 247-acre parcel ripe for redevelopment and it’s adjacent to the Boise River and its Greenbelt, a regional trail. The property is county-owned and surrounded by the suburb of Garden City. Just north of Boise, it is a significant gathering place for the region, hosts everything from the Western Idaho Fair to trade shows and quinceañeras, and it provides a venue for preserving and showcasing the region’s agricultural heritage.
Redeveloping Expo Idaho has been an item of conversation in Ada County for years, but when a 2018 legislative change ended horse racing on the site, it rendered 60 acres of the site unusable. This catalyzed a public engagement process spearheaded by a county-appointed Citizens Advisory Committee, which generated three visions for the site. Each had a different emphasis:
- Development Direction 1: Celebrating the Treasure Valley’s agricultural heritage with an outdoor education campus
- Development Direction 2: Emphasizing sports and events and developing a recreation complex
- Development Direction 3: Developing a mixed-use town center
Expo Idaho Feasibility Assessments
Our ULI panel assessed the economic feasibility of these options and recommended a fourth direction that demonstrated it was possible to include all desired uses in a redeveloped Expo Idaho in order to maximize public benefit. Beyond the actual acreage and uses, the panel stressed that the county’s process and outlook were critical to the project’s initial phases and would ultimately help make it a success. We encapsulated this advice in three words:
- Preserve unique resources, like the site’s proximity to the Boise River, which is a high-quality habitat for fish and other aquatic life
- Celebrate heritage and community, like the Western Idaho Fair and the Boise Hawks baseball team; Memorial Stadium is on site
- Connect with active and complementary uses and expand the community’s vision for the site.
The panel stressed that redevelopment of such a large site needs to be grounded in community input and could take from 10 to 35 years, depending on how the project is phased and whether certain work is undertaken simultaneously. Across all four development directions, costs could range from $80 to $200 million.
Moving Lady Bird Park, and Moving Forward
Those numbers are large, no doubt about it, but as the panel also stressed, funding is available, and public-private partnerships can be a powerful tool. The redevelopment of Expo Idaho is a chance for Ada County to maximize public benefit with a powerful legacy project. Already, the county has taken initial steps to relocate Lady Bird Park from its current location at a busy intersection, to a place closer to the Boise River, where it can leverage existing investments like the Boise River Greenbelt. This was one of the panel’s initial recommendations. As the redevelopment of Expo Idaho moves forward, it highlights the power of planning, phasing, thinking big, and marshalling resources accordingly.
Banner image credit: Expo Idaho
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