A major Idaho health care company announced Wednesday it will provide the bulk of the funding to renovate a historic former hotel and apartment building in downtown Idaho Falls.
The historic former Bonneville Hotel, across the street from City Hall and one of the best-known fixtures of downtown Idaho Falls, most recently served as privately owned low-income apartments. Last year, the former tenants were relocated and The Housing Company, a Boise-based subsidiary of the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, bought the building and started renovating it.
Optum, the company that manages outpatient benefits for Idaho Medicaid recipients and the state Department of Health and Welfare, said at a press conference Wednesday it will provide $8.8 million of the money needed for renovation, representing the majority of the $11.4 million cost.
While the connection between health care and investing in an affordable housing project like the Bonneville might not be immediately apparent, Optum Executive Director Georganne Benjamin said Optum and its parent company, UnitedHealth Group, view affordable housing as an important part of overall health.
“It’s hard for people to address their health needs if they’re worried first about their housing,” she said.
The plan is to have commercial tenants on the first floor and renovate the rest into 35 new apartments, five of which will be let at market rates and the rest according to income. Two apartments will be dedicated to people struggling with homelessness.
Wednesday’s announcement came at a news conference attended by city officials, Gov. Brad Little, representatives of Optum, the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, UnitedHealth Group and construction contractor Bateman-Hall, and representatives of U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson. After the news conference, which was held in the first floor area that will be commercial space when the project is done, Bateman-Hall employees led the assembled politicians and others on a tour of the still-under construction fifth floor of the building.
The Idaho Housing and Finance Association allocated federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits to pay for the project, and Optum Bank is providing $8.8 million in equity through the credits in partnership with Enterprise Housing Credit Investments, according to a news release from Optum. In addition The Housing Company is providing almost $2 million in investment and long-term loans and the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho lent $565,000 to the project. The Idaho Falls Redevelopment Agency also helped by paying $1.3 million to buy the building from its previous owner.
This is the second affordable housing project Optum has helped finance in Idaho; it also helped pay for one in McCall three years ago. Overall, Benjamin said, UnitedHealth Group has spent about $400 million on similar projects nationwide.
Little said tax credits and urban renewal are important economic development tools that make projects such as the renovation of the Bonneville possible. Projects like that, he said, help draw people to places such as Idaho Falls who would rather live in an urban setting.
“You’re not going to attract those urban-inclined types of people that you want if you don’t have facilities like this inside your community,” he said.
Gesturing toward the still-standing structure of the 92-year-old building, Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper said the Bonneville tells the story of Idaho Falls, a story that will continue to be written when the new apartments fill up. Casper said tax credits make projects like this possible.
“Sometimes, communities need that little bit of help that comes in the form of a government program or a government incentive that allows great things to happen,” she said.