The recently revived proposal to merge Pocatello and Chubbuck into one city is still in its infancy but has already gotten off to a rocky start.
Evan Frasure, a former Pocatello resident who served on the Bannock County Commission and Idaho Senate but now lives in Florida, and Pocatello City Council President Jim Johnston are the primary champions of the plan, which Johnston first announced last month.
The new One City Committee, which Frasure said now boasts more than 200 members, including several prominent Gate City area leaders, held a press conference at Perkins Family Restaurant and Bakery Wednesday afternoon.
But in the days since the press conference, several of the people Frasure named as supporters leading the committee have either rescinded any alleged endorsement entirely or expressed significant reservations with how Frasure attempted to present the merits of the merger proposal.
Among many unfounded and misleading statements Frasure has made, the most worrisome to Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad, Chubbuck Mayor Kevin England, and the alleged supporters involved a claim that Pocatello and Chubbuck are entrenched in a “civil war” that allegedly started over a municipal battle involving which city would provide sewer infrastructure for the Northgate community development project.
Furthermore, Frasure claimed having independent cities of Pocatello and Chubbuck has resulted in millions of dollars wasted on duplicate city governments and departments and is the primary reason for exorbitant property taxes in Bannock County.
The ongoing sewer utility fight between the two cities, coupled with high property taxes, has scared away so many potential suitors interested in locating in the Northgate community that the entire project is in trouble of failing, and if that happens, the Gate City area stands to miss out on $5 billion in economic growth, Frasure said during the press conference.
“We have two small-town mayors that are fighting over this (sewer) issue,” Frasure said during the press conference. “These (Northgate) developers are rather upset about what is going on in Pocatello right now. Business owners see this squabble, this civil war between Pocatello and Chubbuck, and it’s a job killer. (These businesses) are not coming into this mess. These people are starting to back off saying, ‘You guys have a civil war and we cannot deal with that two-headed monster.’”
Frasure, who recently started the political advice firm Providence Consulting Group Inc. based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, said he knows of the alleged perils regarding the Northgate community project because one of the partners involved with the Utah-based Millennial Development Partners, Tom Ballard, hired him as a consultant and tasked him with presenting the merits of the city merger as the fix-all to Northgate’s apparent woes. Northgate developers subsequently denied having any involvement with Frasure.
“We could not have a better opportunity (in the Northgate project) and we are about to blow it because we have two mayors and two city councils who want to keep their jobs,” Frasure said during the press conference. “When major corporations see us doing this, we have high property taxes, they have the $5 billion, why would they come to this mess. (These businesses) are saying, ‘This is ridiculous, if you folks do not get one city, then you can kiss off $5 billion.’ Bottom line, that is the problem we are having with two cities.”
Frasure did not explain which businesses he specifically spoke with. He suggested the region could achieve an economic boost and efficiencies by closing the Idaho Falls and Pocatello airports and creating a large regional airport north of Blackfoot. The creation of the new airport, combined with 6,000-plus potential jobs the unspecified businesses would create, could “double” the Gate City area labor base, he said. Frasure did not explain how he arrived at his estimate that the area stands to lose $5 billion in economic growth absent the merger of the cities.
Both mayors and the two private partners of the cities involved with the Northgate community development project, Buck Swaney of Millennial Development Partners and Ken Pape of the Pocatello-based Portneuf Development, emphatically denounced most of what Frasure has said about the merger as it relates to Northgate.
“Neither Tom Ballard, nor Millennial Development Partners nor Northgate has engaged Evan Frasure to do work on our behalf,” Swaney said. “We have no financial, contractual or verbal agreement to work with Evan Frasure, nor do we have any affiliation with him whatsoever.”
Moreover, Swaney said there is absolutely no issue between Millennial Development Partners and both cities as it relates to the sewer infrastructure for Northgate, adding that a merger of Pocatello and Chubbuck is not at all necessary for Northgate to succeed.
“Neither the interaction between Millennial Development Partners and both cities, nor the process of bringing utilities to Northgate has caused us any delay whatsoever,” Swaney said. “The most difficult delay has been in the process of getting the interchange itself completed, which has understandably slowed land sales. But Northgate development does not depend on the consolidation of the two cities to succeed.”
In discussing his current progress in developing the Northgate community, Pape said, “Portneuf Development doesn’t care whether the cities join together or not. This project is going to work because we are going to make it work. I’m building roads, installing utility infrastructure, and selling houses as we speak. We’re moving forward just fine.”
In the aftermath of Frasure’s statements, which were shared via online videos, several people Frasure said were ardent supporters of the project have explained they were never as involved as Frasure claimed or now have serious concerns with how the plan is being presented.
“Frasure was talking way too much for me and I think he is overstating some issues here,” said Pocatello-based commercial real estate agent and a candidate running for a Pocatello City Council seat, Don Zebe, adding that he is not and was never on the committee and learned about the advisory group when Frasure invited him to attend the press conference Wednesday morning. “Evan called me and asked me about the initiative. I’ve thought about it over the years and it could make financial sense. But until any financial analysis or official study on the benefits of a merger is complete, I can’t support anything.”
After Zebe’s support fell through, Frasure announced a different Pocatello City Council candidate, Ethan Ennis, will serve as an advocate for the One City Committee as a supporter of the merger proposal. Ennis confirmed to the Journal Friday that he does support the committee and merger proposal, but would not comment further on his involvement.
Another real estate agent in Pocatello, Ryan Satterfield, who is chairman of the Pocatello Planning and Zoning Commission and co-chair of the One City Committee, still supports the initiative to merge Pocatello and Chubbuck. However, Satterfield said there is mounting ambiguity surrounding the plan as it relates to the politicians involved and a lack of information that could show the project could be worthwhile to Bannock County taxpayers.
“There is some confusion between the politicians who are running their campaigns and this One City Committee concept,” Satterfield said. “The purpose of the committee, perhaps a little different than what the politicians are pushing, is to do the investigation work and find out the feasibility of being able to combine cities.”
Essentially, Satterfield said the One City Committee, which will include people who are both opposed and in favor of the concept, was formed to gather many of the details Frasure presented as facts during the Wednesday press conference.
“I am in favor of the concept, but I think there is a lot of homework still to do to find out what the actual implications of it are and that will take some time,” Satterfield said.
The other One City Committee co-chair Frasure announced is Dustin Manwaring, a former state representative. Manwaring said he made preliminary agreements with Frasure to champion the proposal after one phone call the day before the press conference but is now very apprehensive.
“I’ve only had one conversation with Jim Johnston and Evan Frasure,” Manwaring said. “From what I saw during the press conference, I was not impressed. At this point, I am unsure whether I can co-chair a committee that I don’t have control of. However, I still believe this plan has the potential to work and that we can get it back on track.”
Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad and Chubbuck Mayor Kevin England believe the proposal to merge the two cities, an initiative both mayors agreed had roots with great intentions, has taken a giant step backward, adding that many of Frasure’s selling points for the initiative have been grossly overstated.
“I think the way this merger proposal is being presented is turning people away from the idea,” Blad said. “I don’t think that people are going to respond well to the negative twists and turns that Evan is putting on this. I can appreciate what he is trying to do, but he is going about it in the wrong way.”
Blad also said the relationship with Chubbuck and Northgate developers is in great standing.
”The relationship between the two cities is great,” Blad said. “I don’t know where the negative feeling is coming from. I think that a civil war is an overstatement and I am not sure what the motivation is behind Evan’s statement. In terms of the relationship with private developers, Pocatello and Northgate are just fine. We are doing what we need to do, as are our private partners.”
England, who abruptly left a morning meeting with Frasure hours before the press conference Wednesday afternoon, echoed Blad’s sentiments, saying, “This proposal has certainly been presented in the wrong fashion. There is a lot more front-end work that needs to go into any consolidation, whether that’s a corporate or a municipal merger.”
England continued, “I really don’t see this proposal having any wheels at this point. All I’m hearing about Frasure’s statements at the press conference is a lot of giggling.”