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A decade in the making: Mountain America Center breaks ground

Terri Gazdik only had one word on her mind: finally.

Almost exactly a decade after Idaho Falls voters chose to create an auditorium district to establish an event center for the city, ground was officially broken Tuesday afternoon on the Mountain America Center.

Gazdik, the chairwoman of the Idaho Falls Auditorium District Board of Trustees, joined city and state officials, as well as members of the business community, at the groundbreaking. Gov. Brad Little, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper and a collection of other stakeholders in the event center spoke at the corner of Event Center Drive and Pioneer Road before grabbing golden shovels for the ceremonial first dig.

Idaho Falls Auditorium District Board Chairwoman Terri Gazidk addresses audience members during the groundbreaking of the Hero Arena at Mounta…

“There is a lot more work ahead of us,” Gazdik said. “But eastern Idaho has never had a facility like the one we’re starting to build today.”

The building permit filed for the project in late April values the remaining construction at $51 million. The project has collected $17.16 million through a hotel room occupancy tax over the last decade, along with several million more from corporate sponsorships.

Auditorium District Executive Director Rob Spear said in an interview Tuesday morning that the Mountain America Center should open in October 2022. Idaho Falls’ 48,000-square-foot event center is the product of the third auditorium district in Idaho history, following the ones created in Boise and Pocatello.

“This is going to be the most comprehensive of those centers,” Spear said. “Not only is this going to have the event center, but it’s going to have conference space attached to it.”

Spokeswomen for U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch read excerpts of congratulatory letters from the senators.

The new facility will be home to a minor league team in the North American 3 Hockey League as one of its major tenants. Spear said the 4,000-seat arena will be able to host anything from local sports tournaments to concerts and trade shows.

Teresa McKnight, CEO of Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho, said a successful event center would be able to meet both local needs and bring in new business opportunities and events for the whole region.

“When you come into a new area, you have expectations for what you want from a social scene, what’s available for the arts and for events. People that move to Idaho Falls want to see the same, or better, quality of life they had before,” McKnight said.

History of the Idaho Falls Auditorium District

The goal of building an event center has been almost exactly a decade in the making. On May 17, 2011, more than 60% of Idaho Falls residents voted to establish the auditorium district, which was paid for by a 5% tax on hotel rooms and short-term rentals.

Casper spoke about the involvement she and her family had in collecting signatures for the auditorium district during her speech at the groundbreaking.

Mayor Rebecca Casper addresses audience members during the groundbreaking of the Hero Arena at Mountain America Center on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

The event center was expected to cost around $28 million during the initial campaign in 2011. That price tag has crept up to about $57 million over the years, including the roads and utility work that has already been completed.

Mountain America Credit Union had purchased the naming rights of the building for $4.5 million in the summer of 2019. By early 2020, the Auditorium District was gearing up to announce a groundbreaking date that would have let the center open this October. Spear said district officials had been organizing the final $2 million in donations when the novel coronavirus struck Idaho.

Income from the hotel room tax dropped by more than 30% last year. In July, the project was put on hold indefinitely until tourism and revenue were able to stabilize following the disruptions of COVID-19.

“There was so much uncertainty then about the length of the whole pandemic and the long-term effects on travel. If you told me a year ago that we’d be able to break ground today, I would probably not have believed it,” Spear said.

Two phases of work on the event center preparations had mostly been completed by the beginning of the pandemic — the utilities running through the foundation of the building and the roadwork for the titular Event Center Drive.

Cortney Liddiard, CEO of Ball Ventures, addresses audience members during the groundbreaking of the Hero Arena at Mountain America Center on T…

Eastern Idaho businesses have been major investors in the event center over the years. Ball Ventures donated the 22-acre site for the project along the Snake River Landing. PepsiCo, a multinational corporation with a location in Idaho Falls, donated $500,000 last November.

Earlier this month, Golden Valley Natural provided $2 million to dub the arena inside the event center the Hero Arena and Bingham Healthcare donated $400,000 as it became the official medics for the incoming minor league hockey team.

Local contractor Bateman-Hall Inc. and the Utah-based Hogan Construction serve as construction manager/general contractor partners in the event center.

Brennen is the main education reporter for the Post Register. Contact him with news tips at 208-542-6711.

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