By Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
BOISE – The Idaho Wheat Commission has opted to continue moving forward, cautiously, with plans to build a new, $5.5 million building in downtown Boise.
A final decision has not been made and could be impacted by construction costs, how the downtown business market shakes out following the COVID-19 outbreak – will most people return to work in that area or will they continue to work from home? – and whether the required legislative approval is granted.
“We’re still planning to move forward but we’re in a holding pattern at this point,” said IWC Executive Director Casey Chumrau. “It’s hurry up and wait at this point (but) the wheat commissioners have decided to continue exploring the option. We’re moving forward with the plans but with the understanding that there are still some key ‘no-go’ points.”
The wheat commission, which used to pay rent for a space in the Owyhee Plaza in downtown Boise, purchased its current building at 821 W. State Street, one block from the Idaho Capitol building, for $1.2 million in 2003.
The building is known as the Idaho Wheat and Ag Center and has the “Idaho Wheat” logo on it as well. It has provided a return on investment for wheat growers because several other agricultural groups pay the IWC rent to reside there.
But the aging building – it was built in 1945 – has reached a point where significant investments are needed to maintain it at a functional level, Chumrau said.
“It’s been a very good investment for wheat growers because we’ve been getting a return on our investment,” she said. “But it’s getting to the point now where the maintenance is becoming so costly that it’s eating into the returns. It has not continued to be as big of an asset as it was previously.”
“It’s a superb location but an aging building so this new building would be an investment for the future,” said former IWC Executive Director Blaine Jacobson, who initiated the plans for upgrading the current building and will volunteer his time to guide the project through to completion.
Jacobson, who retired at the end of June, said the current building provided a nice return on investment for the state’s wheat farmers, who pay an assessment that funds the wheat commission.
“We anticipate that over time, the same thing will happen with this building,” he said.
While it hasn’t made a final decision yet, the commission does plan to move forward with the plans if the Idaho Legislature approves of the idea, construction costs don’t soar and the downtown business market remains stable, said IWC Chairman Joe Anderson.
The commission has been purposely building up a cash reserve with the purpose of updating the current building at some point in the future, he said in a column that appeared in the Idaho Grain Producers Association’s fall magazine.
“Well, that time has come,” he said. “Now is time to knock down the old building and build an Idaho Wheat and Ag Center for the future.”
The IWC’s five commissioners, who represent wheat farmers throughout the state and are growers themselves, voted recently to continue exploring the plans.
But Chumrau said the commission also asked for and received feedback from the building’s current tenants before making that decision to move forward.
The Idaho Barley Commission’s board of directors recently voted to support moving forward with the plans for a new building.
Barley commissioners “understand that it’s an opportunity to make an investment for the future,” said IBC Administrator Laura Wilder. “Although it may be inconvenient during the construction, we have to look at the big picture for the long-term and (the commissioners) put their support behind the wheat commission in making the best decision that will serve Idaho agriculture and the grain industry for the future.”
Besides the wheat and barley commissions, current tenants of the building include the Idaho Grain Producers Association, Idaho Wine Commission, Idaho Bean Commission, Milk Producers of Idaho and leading staff from the University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
Since 2003, the building has served as the brain hub of Idaho agriculture, especially during the legislative session, when Food Producers of Idaho, which represents 40 of the state’s main agricultural organizations, meets there weekly to discuss various pieces of legislation that could impact the state’s agricultural industry.
The building has served as a natural gathering place for people involved in Idaho’s ag industry and has served as the agricultural hub of downtown Boise.
“The synergism we have had with all of the different ag groups and university over last 17 years because of that building has been incredible,” Anderson told Idaho Farm Bureau Federation. “It has been an incredible investment that has paid off nicely for Idaho’s agriculture industry.”
Chumrau said that synergism between ag groups has been one of if not the biggest benefit of the building.
“We have cultivated a really nice agricultural group here in the building and it’s a center for collaboration,” she said. “It helps us all be aware of what else is going on in the ag industry and we can all support each other. It’s just become a really nice center for agriculture.”
The renovation plans for the building include demolishing the current 7,500-square-foot building, which is one-and-a-half stories high and includes an upstairs meeting room, and replacing it with a 27,336-square-foot building that is three stories high.
The ground floor would be used for retail space and office space would be included on the second and third floors.
The rooftop would include an outdoor deck that, Chumrau said, “may be another revenue generator where outside groups could rent that space because rooftop property is in short supply here in downtown Boise and it would make a really good area for meetings and corporate events.”
Anderson said one of the biggest benefits of the new building would be much bigger meeting space.
“Meeting space is getting hard to book and expensive in Boise,” he told IFBF. “That will be an incredible benefit to IGPA, the wheat commission, the barley commission and any of the other (groups) in the building.”
The plans for a new building have been carefully thought out over several years, Jacobson said, and architectural design and blueprints for a new building are in place now.
If a final decision is made to move forward, construction would likely start in summer 2021 and the project would be completed in about a year.
“We will not go into this blindly,” Chumrau said. “We will not go forward just to go forward. We want to make sure this is truly a good investment of grower dollars and that it will be something that gives us returns in the medium and long term.”
Jacobson said that one of the main things the commission will be looking at closely before making a final decision is downtown office demand post-COVID “because more businesses are working from home. We want to assure ourselves that the downtown business market is going to continue to be stable and strong.”
The commission also wants to make sure construction costs don’t soar and the IWC needs approval from the Idaho Legislature to move forward.
If the new building is built, the commission will spend about $2.5 million of its current cash reserve of $3.5 million toward the project. The rest of the money would come through the state’s bonding authority and the idea would be to pay that back over 10 years.
Because parking in downtown Boise is in short supply, one of the most talked about features of the new building is a semi-automated, stackable car parking system. The technology for this system was developed in Asia and it would be the first such system in Idaho.
The parking system would have 30 spaces – three high and 10 across – and it would automatically rotate vehicles over or up as needed.
The building would include another 10 surface parking spaces.
Chumrau said there is the possibility that other ag groups would want to locate to the new building and the additional retail, parking, rooftop and office space could help ensure a strong return on investment for the new building.
Earlier in the exploration process, the new building was set to be one or two stories high.
However, Chumrau said, the decision was made to increase the size of the building at the recommendation of some local government officials as well as downtown planning developers who advised the wheat commission that it could help ensure a strong return on investment by adding additional retail, office and parking rental space as rental options.