BOISE, Idaho — The hilltop mansion was a gift to Idaho from potato magnate J.R. Simplot, meant as a residence befitting the governor. Instead, it’s become a money pit — and Idaho’s current governor won’t even live there.
Public outcry was on display at a recent hearing over the house’s future, where a majority of those who spoke recommended either selling the place or returning it to Simplot’s family.
But as Idaho has discovered, it’s easier to take a mansion than it is to give it back: The heirs to the self-made billionaire who died in 2008 at age 99 don’t want it.
The mansion was erected by Simplot back in 1980. Connected to the Boise Valley floor by a narrow, serpentine drive, the 7,100-square-foot home is meant to be noticed.
In real estate parlance, location is everything, but that’s also the reason the “the mansion on the hill" sticks in the collective craw of many Idaho residents.
“The governor of Idaho should be a person that the citizens can relate to," said Robert Fries, a Boise resident. “The governor of Idaho should not be placed on a pedestal on a hill, looking down on everyone."
Simplot handed over the keys in 2004, but it took just two years for its lofty perch to become an issue in the 2006 race to be governor: The Democratic candidate promised he’d never live in a house that seemed to elevate a politician above the ranks of the common man.
Current chief executive C.L. “Butch" Otter won, but the Republican also eschewed the mansion, preferring his riverside ranch west of Idaho’s capital.
And then there’s the cost.
Just to maintain the 37-acre grounds, the state will pay about $80,000 this year, part of a cost-sharing agreement with the Simplot family that also covers adjacent property it still owns. And the list goes on: electricity, $30,000; janitors to clean up after rare occasions the house is used for state events: $12,000 — altogether, the maintenance tab through next June is forecast at $177,400.
That’s $40,000 north of the median Ada County home.