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Ideas aplenty for future of empty, costly Idaho mansion

Thu., Nov. 22, 2012

Idaho’s hilltop governor’s mansion, former home of the late J.R. Simplot, has remained unoccupied since it was donated to the state in 2004. No Idaho governor has lived there. (Betsy Russell)
Idaho’s hilltop governor’s mansion, former home of the late J.R. Simplot, has remained unoccupied since it was donated to the state in 2004. No Idaho governor has lived there. (Betsy Russell)

Many citizens suggest state find way to get rid of it

BOISE – Idaho could turn its unoccupied, hilltop governor’s mansion into the “Governor’s Hill” winery, one citizen suggests, remaking the grassy hillsides into terraced vineyards and the house into a tasting room and visitor center.

Or it could give the place, which is adorned with a huge American flag, to the Department of Veterans Affairs for a recovery center, “of course keeping the flag flying in honor of all those who have served,” proposed Teresa McRoberts.

Idaho still hasn’t figured out what to do with the vacant mansion, the former home of the late billionaire J.R. Simplot.

No Idaho governor has lived there, and a month after a public hearing drew calls for getting rid of it, the state has received 50 public comments to a legislative panel charged with overseeing it.

Nine wanted to keep it as a governor’s residence. “It would be a shame not to utilize this gracious gift as it was intended,” wrote Amy Groves, of Star. “This iconic home is the perfect home for a governor,” wrote Pamela Betz, of Boise.

But the rest had other ideas. The state could contract it out to a bed-and-breakfast operator, suggested Cheryl Horton, of Boise. It could dismantle the house and create a Simplot memorial park, wrote Kent Plaisted.

Steve Stallard suggested advertising it worldwide for rent. “Celebrities love to spend money to look like they have money,” he wrote.

Wrote Annie Williams, “It would make a fabulous wedding venue and small convention hall.”

Tim Tuttle suggested selling the place to “let capitalism take its course. … If there were a nice restaurant/bar up there, with views of the city, I’d be a customer.”

Nearly half of those responding just wanted the state to get rid of the property, which costs $177,000 a year to maintain, including $80,000 for grounds maintenance and $40,000 for electricity, largely for irrigation pumps.

“How on earth can we validate spending $177,000 to maintain vacant property when our schools can’t afford textbooks for our children?” asked Laura Callaway.

Wrote Darlene Sprague, of Meridian, “People in Idaho cannot afford food on their tables, and Idaho keeps a very, very costly house on a hill for what reason?” She added five question marks.

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, said, “If you go through all these emails, the overwhelming idea here is to get rid of it in some way.”

That may not be easy.

“I’m assuming we aren’t going to be able to sell the property from the standpoint of the complications that that may create,” said Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, who chairs the Governor’s Housing Committee. That’s partly because the Simplot family still owns much of the surrounding land. The family has first rights to the property if the state decides to sell it.

Bock said, “I know a piece of unmarketable property when I see it.”

And Winder said it’s unclear whether the property could pay for itself as an event center or a museum.

Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, said she loves the idea of a bed-and-breakfast, but “it’s not a house made for a bed-and-breakfast.” For one thing, the Simplot house has only two bedrooms. Likewise, King said, “I love the vineyard. But I think we need to sell the house. … I think we’re wasting taxpayers’ money.”

Rep. Max Black, R-Boise, said the real problem is the high cost of maintaining the grassy grounds. If the Simplot family would be agreeable to doing away with the iconic lawn in favor of xeriscaping or another solution, he said, maintenance costs would drop significantly.

But doing that would remove a popular local recreation area: Boiseans long have sledded down the hill in winter and slid down it atop ice blocks the rest of the year, making the site a popular draw for local children and families.

Said Black, “I think we need to sit down and talk to the Simplot family and just make some decisions.”

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