At the Owyhee, Everything Old is New Again

'We’re going to be a cool, funky property'


Editor's note: take a look at the artist's renderings of new plans for the Owyhee by clicking on the images to the right.

Clay Carley's memory of the Owyhee Plaza hotel is similar to many Boiseans. His own dates back to the 1960s.

"Gosh, I remember coming to the old Gamekeeper restaurant with my parents when I was a kid," said Carley, with a far-off twinkle in his eye. "Do you remember the old high booths? And remember the chefs were all duded up when they served those tableside flambes? It was pretty impressive to a young man."

But it would be a long time before he would ever set foot again in the century-old landmark.

Carley wasn't certain what he wanted to do for a living when he was growing up, but he was pretty sure that he wanted to leave Boise.

"Mostly, I just wanted to see the world," he said with a grin.

Indeed, Carley saw the world and then some. He worked as an underwater photographer in Santa Barbara, Calif.; an executive for a New York City-based trading company; a vice president of exports for an international conglomerate, sending him to Africa and the Middle East; and founded his own electro-hydraulic lift company.

Eventually, though, all of those roads led back to Boise.

"I came back here in 2000 and I told my mom that I wanted to watch what she did," Carley recalled.

"I didn't know what to expect. Honestly, the thought of property management seemed very dull to me," he said.

His mother, Joan Carley, loved all-things historic but she was anything but dull. She co-founded the Idaho Historic Preservation Council, the Downtown Boise Association and the Old Boise Historic District.

Clay Carley worked alongside his mother to manage Old Boise at Sixth and Main streets, ultimately taking over the property in the shadow of her death in November 2011.

Even though his new Boise-based career concerned historic properties, he said he never really thought about the Owyhee Plaza until March 2012.

"I was standing in my driveway and my neighbor Pam Sprute--a real estate agent--asked, 'Would you be interested in buying the Owyhee Plaza?'" he remembered. "I said, 'Hell no.' I told her I don't need another old building. But she said, 'Here's the price.' I did some quick mental calculations and said I had to look at it."

In April 2012, Carley walked through the doors of the Owyhee for the first time in decades.

"My first impressions were that it was old, tired and needed a lot of work," said Carley, who conceded that most people would have been overwhelmed and walked away. "But the other side of my brain was screaming: 'economics!' At the right price, I thought I could do a lot. I just didn't know what that was."

Carley was haunted by the Owyhee--not unusual for a hotel, opened in 1910, where some visitors insisted they saw ghosts roaming the halls. But Carley was not interested in ghosts, let alone the hotel rooms they haunted. In fact, every business scenario he considered pointed to the hotel portion of the building as a money pit.

A conversation with a Portland-based contractor changed his thinking about the structure.

"He told me, 'This is easy. You just take the west wing and make them all apartments,'" said Carley, who next turned to someone he called "a local guru" of apartments in Boise.

"And I learned that the vacancy was around 3 percent and the newest apartments were about 20 years old," said Carley. "If I could build apartments at the right price, I was told I could fill them in two months."

And that sealed the deal.

"This is just great," Boise Mayor Dave Bieter told Carley. "We would love to see this."

Carley briefed Bieter and members of the Capital City Development Corporation April 8 on his grand plan to convert the Owyhee from a hotel into an amalgam of apartments, offices and banquet facilities. His designs also call for the reopening of the old Gamekeeper-- presumably under a new name--and revitalizing the building's rooftop terrace as a premiere downtown destination.

"I would love to throw back the first cocktail on the rooftop," said Bieter to a roomful of laughter.

Carley said that the old rooftop was a significant part of Boise's history.

"Keep in mind that there was no air conditioning for much of the last century," he said. "So the rooftop was very desirable for travelers between Portland or Seattle. ... The view from the deck is the finest I've seen in the city."

But the most impressive part of Carley's plan is his timetable. He said the new rooftop terrace should be open by September and the apartments complete by year's end.

He's not wasting any time. Demolition of two floors of hotel rooms on the building's south side has already begun, freeing up even more space for parking.

"My mom taught me that if you don't control the parking to the building, you really only own half a building," said Carley. "The parking attracted me as much as anything else."

All of the Owyhee's current business tenants have been relocated to the third floor of the building, where they will stay while the first, second, fourth and fifth floors are renovated.

"We've kept the Plaza Grill open," said Carley, who enjoyed a salmon lunch at the restaurant while speaking with Boise Weekly. "And we're still running the Owyhee banquet business, but we're going to be expanding that business in a big way. "

Carley's plans for the banquet facilities, Plaza Grill, new gourmet restaurant to replace the Gamekeeper and the revitalization of the rooftop terrace have a significant hurdle to clear.

"The previous owner had only one license to serve all of those functions," said Carley. "But we just learned that there's an obscure phrase in Idaho code that says a convention facility open for 75 years or more might be eligible for an additional license. That would certainly include the Owyhee."

Restaurants and liquor licenses aside, the big task at hand is turning the Owyhee into an apartment complex. If he's successful, by this time next year, Carley will have converted 68 hotels rooms into 36 apartments.

"They'll go for about $900 per month. Each one will be one-bedroom, 700 square feet," said Carley.

Boise City Councilman David Eberle liked what he saw as Carley shared his plans.

"Your vision is on target," said Eberle. "I think that's a pretty good idea."

Carley also shared that he's planning to convert the Owyhee's spacious 30,000-square-foot, 10-foot-high basement into a fitness facility, complete with bicycle storage, lockers and showers for downtown Boise bicycle commuters.

"We're going to be a cool, funky property," he said.

Carley said the renovation of one of Boise's oldest and highest profile properties makes great business sense and he hopes to see a return on his investment within two years.

"But my wife still thinks I'm nuts," he said. "She supports it, but she's hanging on to her knickers."