The patio of Gene Hutchison's restaurant and bar on Eighth Street overlooks a Boise eyesore. But now The Piper Pub and Grill owner has what he calls "a front row seat" to the evolution of what will become Idaho's tallest building.
"We've been dealing with the hole for so many years," said Hutchison. "A lot of people say 'Oh, they're actually working on it?' or 'They're really going to do it this time?'"
That's why Hutchison launched a daily "Fill the Hole" lunch special, advertised by a sign hanging above Eighth Street. The menu rotates daily: a fried ham and cheese sandwich one day, philly cheesesteak the next. He also offers a "contractor special" on Mondays in an effort to lure the scores of construction workers building up their appetites as they build a new landmark.
David Bowar, the project manager for Boise-based Engineered Structures Inc., said the two biggest items on his plate, figuratively, were a pair of high-profile construction jobs: one at Eighth and Main streets, another less than one-tenth of a mile away, at Broadway Avenue and Front Street, home of the soon-to-open Whole Foods Market and Walgreens Pharmacy.
"Whole Foods will employ about 150 people over the course of the project," Bowar told Boise Weekly. "And the Tower will bring between 300 and 400 more jobs, total."
Wearing his trademark brown ESI hardhat, Bowar beamed like a proud parent-to-be as public and private officials crawled down a flight of makeshift metal stairs into the "Boise Hole" on July 12. They broke ground for what will be an 18-story structure, to serve as Zions Bank's new Idaho headquarters. The day after the groundbreaking, scaffolding and stage had been replaced by CAT backhoe loaders. By August, workers had already begun laying rebar and pouring concrete for the building's foundation.
ESI could finish a floor per week, guessed President and CEO Neil Nelson, with a targeted ribbon cutting of January 2014.
Bowar said his plans include a lot more time in the hole.
"This project will be 80 percent of my time for the next three years," Bowar said. "You'll see a structural steel skeleton coming out of the ground this fall, eventually going up about 280 feet by January or February of next year. Next, the skin will move up the building, and that will start this year as well. Once the skin is on the building, then the inside work can begin."
After sitting empty in Boise's downtown for 25 years, filling the hole is an emotional project for ESI, Bowar said.
"That's a lot of blood and sweat down there," he said, pointing to the now infamous hole.
It hits close to home for Bowar, as well. For more than a decade, he worked with Mortenson Construction, the company contracted by Rick Peterson's Boise Tower Associates to build the once-promised but ill-fated 25-story Boise Tower at that location.
For more than a decade, Boiseans were promised a tower that never was, tangled in legal and financial skirmishes, bankruptcies and an unfinished hole of rebar.
"It's really kind of ironic and poetic to be working on this project after working with Mortenson on the Boise Tower," said Bowar.
Ultimately, Mortenson's project fizzled, leaving a prominent, historic parcel of downtown Boise empty for years.
But the hole isn't Bower's only major project. In fact, he doesn't have to shuttle too far between his two biggest projects.
The Whole Foods store will be a first for Idaho but it's Bowar's third construction project for the Whole Foods corporation. Bowar said the Boise location is on target. In fact, it's a bit ahead of schedule. Originally slated for a spring 2013 opening, the store is expected to swing open its doors in time for Thanksgiving.
"We plan to deliver that," he said. "We haven't failed them yet."
Bowar suggested that ESI's track record in building other Whole Foods locations helped secure the company's expansion into Boise.
"We were always with Whole Foods along the way to get them in town," he said.
Concrete was already drying under triple-digit temperatures at Broadway Avenue and Front Street during the first week of August as Bowar's crews began preparing the ground for new sod, to be rolled out in the coming weeks. Both Whole Foods and the adjacent Walgreens lifted new signage into place to trumpet their arrival to the thousands of vehicles that pass by on any given weekday.
ESI has a sign or two of its own at the site, not simply to say it was on the job but more importantly to advertise what Bowar said was ESI's commitment to the local community after pouring so much of its recent efforts into projects outside of the area. ESI maintains offices in Arizona and Missouri and has worked on Home Depot, Kohl's and Walmart retail projects nationwide.
But the company is particularly excited about its Treasure Valley projects, including a new 47-acre campus off of Eagle Road, which will house the headquarters, manufacturing and distribution operations for Scentsy, maker of wickless candles heated in candle warmers. Scentsy even required ESI to design and construct its own rail spur so that railroad tracks would lead right up to the manufacturing operation where massive storage tanks will accommodate up to 1 million pounds of wax.
"We have team meetings where our team is just so emotional and so driven," said Bowar. "There's a high level of emotion and pride for us in all of our projects."
The Eighth and Main tower, Whole Foods, Scentsy headquarters and other local projects such as the just-completed Micron Business and Economic and Environmental Research buildings--both at Boise State--should dramatically increase ESI's construction footprint on the region. But for now, Bowar gets excited about the little things, too.
"We'll have a crane up there with an ESI logo," Bowar said pointing to the empty space at Eighth and Main streets. "That will be pretty unforgettable."