Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Urban renewal agency requires specific plans

Nampa voters chose last year to disband city's URA

Express Staff Writer

Hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to the Idaho Center in Nampa, 20 miles west of Boise, for conventions, concerts and sporting events.

Big name entertainers like Cher and the Eagles have roused hordes of fans.

The venue, including a 120,000-square-foot arena, 100,000-square-foot sports center, outdoor amphitheater and Horse Park, was built with funds generated by an urban renewal agency.

Nampa created its urban renewal area in 1995.

A year later, it built the events center with urban renewal agency tax funds.

A benefits analysis commissioned by the URA in 2003 found that the Idaho Center contributed $2.2 million to the Nampa-area economy in fiscal year 2003-2004, and contributed $7.4 million in the previous four years, according to a January article in the Idaho Statesman.

But not all voices sing the praises of the Idaho Center.

Nampa resident Shirley Dean was distressed by the fact that so much urban renewal money was being used for that project.

"They were going to do all this stuff with housing," she said. "They did a couple of things, then put millions and millions into the Idaho Center and it kept getting worse."

She admits the Idaho Center is a good economic tool, but it came at the expense of other community projects.

"It became overwhelming, especially where there was infrastructure, things like sidewalks and bridges, that didn't get done," she said.

Like all urban renewal agencies, Nampa's had a plan.

"But there were so many gray areas in the plan," Dean said.

Activities such as late-night teen programs were paid for in part with urban renewal agency funds, Dean said.

"An urban renewal agency should be more for bricks and mortar (projects), not social programs," she said.

In addition, the agency's money funded public works projects that many residents thought should come out of the city's budget.

"It was a cash cow," Dean said.

Dean formed the North Nampa Residents Association to activate the neighborhood and make their concerns heard.

"When we brought it to their attention, they started doing things," she said.

Clearing refuse off lots and tearing down dilapidated buildings to make way for private development were some of the positives, Dean said.

"Urban renewal agencies are great if they're done with a plan and are very specific in what they should be," Dean said. "They can bring economic development to blighted areas and better-paying jobs."

Debbie Mammone, finance director for the city of Nampa, counts dozens of successes the URA engendered, from a demolition program in blighted areas to affordable housing projects, and underpass and parks improvements.

"There's a very long list of things urban renewal accomplished," she said.

The Idaho Center, she said, elicited the most debate.

"That provided a lot of economic development—I think the benefits are tremendous—but it did provide a lot of controversy," she said.

If the city had the option of doing it over, it would, Mammone said, but with a different approach.

"I think we'd spend more time on communication and sharing of information," she said.

Nearing its 10-year expiration date, the urban renewal agency in 2004 faced its future.

Though not a requirement, city officials chose to let residents speak through an advisory vote on whether they wanted the agency to continue.

They didn't.

"The urban renewal board and City Council decided to honor that," Mammone said.

Dean, who eventually sat on the agency's board, said if the issue were to come up again, she would consider supporting the formation of another urban renewal agency.

"I'm not denying that urban renewal agencies are a good economic tool," she said. But, "people should be aware what can happen if it's not in a concrete plan."

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