Potato mogul's presence felt in Idaho mansion debate

By JOHN MILLER

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 9 2012 1:11 a.m. MDT

Members of the Idaho Governor's Housing Committee listen to public testimony Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012, in Boise, Idaho. The committee, from left to right, includes Rep. Phyllis King, D-Boise, Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Eagle, and Teresa Luna, Director of the Department of Administration. The committee sought public comment as it decides the future of the Idaho's unoccupied governor's mansion. (AP Photo/Todd Dvorak)

Associated Press

BOISE — Potato mogul J.R. Simplot may be four years dead, but his larger-than-life presence continues to influence debate over the future of the hilltop home he donated in 2004 to be Idaho's gubernatorial mansion.

The Governor's Housing Committee, which oversees the 7,100-square-foot mansion, last week held its first formal public hearing on the home's fate, to give residents a chance to weigh in.

Ballooning costs — to the tune of $177,400 this year alone — as well as the still-unoccupied home's posture above Boise's skyline that strikes some as too regal — have spurred demands it be jettisoned.

Boise resident Barbara Kemp told the panel that Simplot himself would have seen the place as a financial drain.

"It's inappropriate to continue funding this mansion on the hill," Kemp told the five-member panel, invoking Simplot's legacy as a hard-charging, up-by-the-bootstraps businessman who knew the value of a dollar. "We could take a lesson from him."

Only a half-dozen people testified at the hour-long meeting, and just one of them, Michael Kostanecki of Boise, favored keeping the home.

Kostanecki warned selling it and the famous 30-by-50-foot American flag that flies over the 37-acre property would be a slap in J.R.'s face — and a stain on the state of Idaho.

"You can't have Idaho without that flag and without that hill," Kostanecki said. "If we have any pride in the guy who really helped develop the state, we should keep it the way it is."

The five-member housing committee aims to meet again within the month, as it mulls the mansion's future.

Options for the home include keeping it, trying to sell it — or returning it to the Simplot family, a touchy subject. Simplot died in 2008 at age 99; his descendants have said they'd prefer the home remain in state hands.

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian and chairman of the Governor's Housing Committee, said he'd be in favor of keeping the home, but only if the public is behind it, too.

"All options are on the table," Winder said after the meeting. "To terminate it as a residence, using it as a venue for state events, giving it back to the family."

If Idaho decides to dispose of the mansion, it must first give members of the Simplot family the right of first refusal, at market prices.

And if any purchase offer is $2.1 million or less — the appraised value of the house in 2004 — the Simplots could take it back, even though Idaho has paid for six years of upkeep and used $310,000 from private donations for extensive renovations to make it fit to house official state visitors or host meetings.

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