With tourism revenue plummeting, construction of the Auditorium District's Mountain America Center has been put on hold indefinitely.
This started out looking like the year the event center would finally get off the ground after nine years of planning. In February, the auditorium district’s executive director Rob Spear was “cautiously optimistic” on a March groundbreaking and a completion date of October 2021.
The coronavirus, however, has put a stop to such hopes. Just before the pandemic struck, Spear had at last gotten a final guaranteed price from the general contractors: $57 million. The event center board hired a bond underwriter who came up with a financial plan.
According to Spear, the underwriter found that the Auditorium District was $2.5 million short of that $57 million needed for the event center.
The Idaho Falls Auditorium District receives a 5% room occupancy tax from all hotels, motels and other short-term rentals located within city limits. So it wasn't a bad number when the district was pulling in an average of $2.4 million to $2.5 million per year in tourism revenue. In 2019, the district received $2,407,599.
“We were about $2.5 million short of our fundraising goal, but we had a plan to cover that $2.5 million. So we were very optimistic that we could proceed forward, but we were dependent upon tourism revenues being consistent. And, of course, they’re not,” Spear said.
Between December and February, hotel tax revenue held relatively steady when compared to the previous year. The numbers never fluctuated more than 2% each month. Then, March hit. In March, hotel tax revenue fell by 29.87%. In March 2019, the Auditorium District received $137,349.48 in bed tax revenue. In March 2020, it received $96,322.39.
Since then, said Spear, hotel tax revenue is now at 37% less than it was overall from last year.
“We were up over the first months of the year, but then March, April, May were just brutal,” Spear said.
The Auditorium District does not intend to set any new plans until tourism dollars have returned to normal. Spear doesn’t see that happening until after the coronavirus pandemic is over.
Spear had also hoped to raise significant funds for the Mountain America Center through donors. That too has taken a backseat during the pandemic.
“We have a number of outstanding proposals out, but we wanted to be respectful and not be too aggressive at this time when businesses are struggling,” Spear said.
It's a stark contrast from July 2019, when the auditorium district received its largest donation yet of $4.5 million from the Mountain America Credit Union in return for naming rights of the event center.
The first two phases of the Mountain America Center, which would lay the groundwork for construction of the building, began prior to the pandemic: the construction work on Pioneer Road and the event center’s building pad. According to Spear, those are 95% complete and are expected to be fully finished by September.
Bateman-Hall Inc., of Idaho Falls, and Hogan Construction, of Utah, have partnered to serve in a combined Construction Manager/General Contractor role for the event center.
The 48,000-square-foot facility will contain a 27,000-square-foot arena space. The arena is projected to hold 4,000 people. Spear said this seating will include 10 party suites that will have the capacity to seat between 13 to 24 people in each one. An additional 11,500 square feet will go toward meeting space.
The auditorium district hopes to host events such as sporting events, rodeos, Disney on Ice, trade shows and conventions.