Ada County Considers New Future for Expo Idaho

by Louisa Evers

What is Expo Idaho?  For many, it’s the fairgrounds because Ada County has held the Western Idaho Fair on the site since 1967.  However, the 240-acre Expo Idaho site includes much more than the fairgrounds.  Expo Idaho includes the former Les Bois horse racing park, Boise Hawks stadium, Riverside RV Park, Lady Bird Park, EMS, and University of Idaho Extension.  In addition to the fair, Expo Idaho hosts trade shows, company gatherings, auctions, sporting events, livestock round-ups, and a variety of other events.

What makes Expo Idaho important to BREN is that the Boise River and Greenbelt line the property to the north and much of the site is in floodplain.

entrance Expo Idaho        2 bikers on Greenbelt

Top – entrance to Expo Idaho    Bottom – Greenbelt and river adjacent to Expo Idaho

What’s Next After Horse Racing?

The ending of horse racing in 2019 spurred the Ada County Commissioners to start a process to consider a new future for Expo Idaho.  The race track and stables occupy close to one half of the site (Map).  Although the Expo Idaho property lies within the city limits of Garden City, Ada County owns for the site.

In November 2019, the Ada County Board of Commissioners established a 3-phase process to explore future uses of the property.  A Citizen’s Advisory Committee was formed to gather information and develop three scenarios to present to the Commissioners.  The Citizen’s Advisory Committee held their first meeting on February 26, 2020, to orient themselves on the site, discuss the types of events that occur there, and talk about options and opportunities.  Subcommittees met in late September to develop visions based around three themes: Agriculture and Outdoor Recreation; Recreation, Event, and Sports Complex; and Mixed Use City Center.  Although the arrival of COVID-19 hampered the intended schedule, the Advisory Committee met six times and delivered its report in January 2021 (Learn more.)

BREN’s Vision for a Better Boise River

In August 2020, Rob Tiedemann, chair of BREN’s Coordinating Team, made a presentation to the Citizens Advisory Committee explaining who BREN was and introducing the Boise River Enhancement Plan (View the recording ).

Rob provided information on the local flora and fauna that use Expo Idaho or occur in the vicinity; recommended using sites like Barber Park and MK Nature Center as examples of restoration and public education opportunities; and described the different ecosystem services provided by the Boise River and its floodplain, such as conveying flood flows, removing pollutants, and providing fish and wildlife habitat.

Rob reminded the Committee that the Expo Idaho site is unique and irreplaceable and suggested 1) conservation of open space and restoration of the 500-year flood plain, 2) improved conveyance of flood flows and removal of informal dikes and levees to promote public health and safety, 3) restoration of the waterway that runs through the race track in accordance with a professionally developed plan, 4) buffer Expo Idaho from adjacent roadways, 5) plan future land use that promotes the health and well-being of adjacent residents and visitors, 6) provide no or low-cost family recreation, 7) complement existing and planned public spaces to create an urban natural river corridor from Diversion Dam to the Snake River and, 8) respect the current value of the site as open space and leave the parcel as is until money is available to complete the project.

  pond at Expo Idaho    fox

Top – pond at Expo Idaho   Bottom – Fox by Ken Miracle

Keep the Fair at Expo Idaho

Public input was gathered on the three scenarios in Phase 2 beginning in March 2021.  Ada County conducted an online survey.  86% of Ada County residents who took part in the survey want the Western Idaho Fair to stay at EXPO Idaho.  In the survey, residents also asked for more natural spaces and an expanded Greenbelt on the 247-acre property, with 51% and 52% of respondents asking for each, respectively.

BREN has been counting birds in the large open space of the former Les Bois horse racing park for 18 months.  Bird counts over time provide valuable information on what bird species use this area.  The infield includes a pond and waterway and abuts the Boise River Greenbelt.  In five bird walks, BREN has documented the presence of 61 different species of birds.  The information is provided to the Expo Idaho Manager, Ada County Commissioners, and the Citizen’s Advisory Committee. Read more about the birds.

birders    Ruddy duck

Top – bird count at Expo Idaho  Bottom – Ruddy duck by Ceredig Roberts

Commissioners Waiting for Economic Analysis

In the summer, BREN provided input to the Urban Land Institute, the entity contracted to provide the economic analysis of the three scenarios developed by the Citizen’s Advisory Committee.  Among the information provided was the importance of the Boise River in enhancing adjacent property values, spending on river-related recreation, and intrinsic value of the Boise River to all who live, work, and play in or along the river.  We reiterated intangible values such as ecosystem services provided by the river and its floodplain and open space.  We emphasized as well, avoided costs such as the need to construct and maintain expensive levees by allowing a portion of the Expo Idaho site to serve as a functioning floodplain and avoiding damage to property and infrastructure downstream.  The Commissioners will resume their discussion of the future of Expo Idaho when analysis is completed.

BREN is keeping tabs on the on-going process of determining the future of the Expo Idaho and continuing to look for opportunities to enhance the health of the Boise River.

Relocating Lady Bird Park

On October 19, the Ada County Commissioners adopted a resolution to begin a process to move Lady Bird Park to Expo Idaho property adjacent to the Boise River.  In 1966, Ada County worked with the United States Department of the Interior under a Land and Water Conservation Fund Project Agreement to develop the 20-acre park and recreation area at the corner of Chinden and Glenwood.  Lady Bird Park has been used for recreation purposes, mainly Little League baseball, since then.  A very formal process is required to move the Park from its original location.  Property adjacent to the Boise River is in the floodplain and BREN has suggested enhancing its flood conveyance function.  BREN will monitor this process and alert members to opportunities to make public comment.

Boise River at Expo Idaho    Great blue heron taking flight

Top – Boise River at Expo   Bottom – Great blue heron by Ceredig Roberts