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Idahoans suggest new uses for unused governor’s mansion

Idaho's official, but vacant, governor's residence, the former home of the late billionaire J.R. Simplot (Betsy Russell)
Idaho's official, but vacant, governor's residence, the former home of the late billionaire J.R. Simplot (Betsy Russell)
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, former home of the late billionaire J.R. Simplot and adorned with a huge American flag, to the Veterans Administration 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 - where no Idaho governor has lived - but a month after a public hearing drew calls for getting rid of it, the state’s 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 all 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 costly property, which is costing $177,000 a year to maintain, including $80,000 for grounds maintenance and $40,000 for electricity, largely due to 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, including an area with stables, part of the hillsides, and another home. 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. Steve Frey, who suggested the vineyard, said, “I believe this use of the house and grounds would solve almost every problem and objection. … It would become a source of revenue for the state - after all, the state owns liquor dispensaries, does it not?” Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, said, “I love the 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. “I love the vineyard,” King said. “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 the iconic lawn in favor of xeriscaping or another solution, he said, maintenance costs would drop significantly. That would also remove a popular local recreation area, however: Boiseans long have sledded on the hill in winter, and slid down it atop ice blocks the rest of the year, making the site a popular draw for local kids 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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