It’s a stunning, 7,100-square-foot mansion — ”visible for miles,” some have said — sitting on a grassy hilltop in Boise, ID with views over the scenic Boise Valley. The magnificent, Mediterranean-style structure commands 37 green acres and boasts a library, a boardroom, two kitchens and ample entertainment spaces. A dream home, it seems — so why is it so hard to get someone to take it?
You’d think people would be fighting to lay claim to Idaho’s majestic governor’s mansion, but nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, the state’s governor doesn’t even want it — and never did.
After being elected governor in 2006, Clement Leroy “Butch” Otter politely declined to occupy the State of Idaho’s Executive Residence. Instead, Otter chose to live on a much humbler riverside ranch in western Idaho. So the Idaho governor’s mansion, also known as the Governor’s House and the Idaho House, has remained empty, aside from the occasional state function.
But it sure does cost a lot to let a house like that sit vacant. Keeping up with the maintenance of the home continues to cost Idaho taxpayers at least $125,000 a year. And just this year, the maintenance price tag was even higher: $177,400.
Angry residents have demanded that the empty, 32-year-old home be returned to the Simplot family, the founders of a potato-farming empire who donated the hilltop mansion to the state in 2004 for the sole purpose of it being the governor’s residence — something that didn’t become official until 2009. Yet Gov. Otter, whose marriage to a Simplot ended in divorce in 1993, has never moved in.
“It’s inappropriate to continue funding this mansion on the hill,” Boise resident Barbara Kemp said during a public hearing held by the Governor’s Housing Committee on Oct. 2. Kemp told the committee that potato magnate J.R. Simplot himself, who is now dead, would have seen the mansion as a “waste of money” and financial drain on a state that’s already “tapped out.”
Kemp’s thoughts are echoed by former Boise legislator John Gannon, who said at the hearing that Idaho’s governor’s mansion program (which includes a maintenance fund that has plummeted from $1.5 million in 2005 to $900,000 in 2012) is both costly and outdated.
“There is nostalgia for a governor’s mansion, probably based upon the beautiful century-old homes that many other states have. But I think many Idahoans are frustrated that the idea just hasn’t worked in Idaho,” Gannon told AOL Real Estate. “After 25 years, many expensive plans, and a costly, empty mansion for six years, the governor’s mansion program has failed.”
Despite pressure from Boise residents to hand the keys back to the Simplot family, the heirs to the Simplot estate have said that they have no intention of taking it back.
“It’s a special piece of property that the Simplot family intended to be used for a special purpose, and being utilized as the official residence of the governor would fulfill that intent,” Simplot spokesman David Cuoio said in a statement to AOL Real Estate. “We are satisfied with the agreement we made with the state.”
A proposal was made in February to sell the mansion in order to save Idaho’s drowning state parks system, but it was rejected by lawmakers.
An ‘outdated’ program?
According to Gannon, the very idea of having a governor’s mansion is becoming “obsolete.” The traditional, hierarchical ideal of having a governor “watching over” his or her people and the necessity of designated housing for the chief executive (conventionally meant to symbolize the “grandeur of government”) is backward and does not cater to a “modern-day” governor with his own family, tastes and preferences.
“This is fundamentally why the modern Simplot mansion has been empty,” Gannon told AOL Real Estate. “No person should live in a home chosen by others.”
And it’s not just Idaho’s Gov. Otter who thinks so.
Governors from several other states have also declined to move into official residences or only occupy them part-time, including Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, Michigan‘s Rick Snyder, Indiana‘s Mitch Daniels, New Jersey‘s Chris Christie, New Hampshire‘s John Lynch, New York‘s Andrew Cuomo and Ohio’s John R. Kasich. In some cases, governor’s mansions have been transformed into museums or wedding mills just “to make ends meet.”
The future of the Idaho House is now being questioned in a series of public hearings taking a look at how to fend off some of the state’s fiscal problems. Though there is a case to be made for preserving historic structures and landmarks, “I can’t believe we would let this symbol of Idaho go to some developer,” Boise resident Michael Costanecki said at one public hearing.
But the costs involved in maintaining a governor’s mansion is hard to justify and “not worth the expense,” according to governors from Arizona, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont, which don’t have governor’s mansions, as well as California — where the governor’s mansion long ago was turned into a state park.
“A governor has the right to choose a residence and receive a housing allowance as part of the compensation package,” Gannon told AOL Real Estate. “In Idaho, it’s time to end a program that has failed.”