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D. F. Oliveria: Fill-dirt flap digs up the dark side of CdA

Sun., April 22, 2007

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would have a problem with a $64 million grant and endowment for a community center in Coeur d’Alene.

Yet, self-appointed citizens’ advocate Larry Spencer and some anonymous letter writers do.

Spencer has publicly accused the Salvation Army of covering up a sweetheart deal with a generous contractor who made a $50,000 contribution and accepted rock-bottom rates to provide fill dirt for a Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center. The anonymous penmen did their part to thwart the community center project by complaining about the Salvation Army’s role in letters and phone calls to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Americans United wrote a threatening letter to the city.

No one, including Spencer, is willing to say flat out he opposes the center, especially as it enters the final stages of local fundraising to lock up the Kroc grant and endowment. The local effort must raise $1.6 million between now and the end of May to reach its goal of $6 million in local matching money. Spencer’s allegations about “dirtgate” and eleventh-hour concerns about church-state issues can be seen as an attempt to undercut those efforts.

Why am I experiencing a sense of déjÀ vu?

For some reason, the dark side of Coeur d’Alene’s generous soul emerges whenever an attempt is made to build a community center.

I first encountered this phenomenon in 1985 as a relatively new reporter in The Spokesman- Review’s Coeur d’Alene office.

In October 1983, the city closed the old community center – the two old brick buildings at Seventh and Montana that once served as Coeur d’Alene High School. The buildings were in terrible shape as I toured them in winter 1984-85, because Jim Fromm’s administration had turned off the heat to save money. On impulse, I may have shot the last basket ever made in the old gym when I grabbed a deflated ball and sunk a layup.

Months before the June 1985 vote, matters looked good for a $3.2 million bond to convert the buildings into a combination community center, library and senior center. A poll showed 62 percent of the residents supported the community center concept. But the dark side of Coeur d’Alene’s soul surfaced in the form of dueling senior citizen groups and a last-minute, door-to-door effort by the Kootenai County Property Owners Association to torpedo the bond campaign. The bond election won a majority of the votes, 1,341 to 1,330. But it needed a two-thirds supermajority to pass.

Later, the buildings were torn down and the property transformed into a neighborhood park with a name few know, Phippeny.

The community’s children continued to learn to swim at the beaches on Lake Coeur d’Alene’s north shore during the few months of good weather the region enjoys each year – and to make do for themselves during the winter months.

Fifteen years later, another coalition of strange bedfellows coalesced to throttle an advisory vote for a $6.3 million community center to be built at city-owned Cherry Hill. A grass-roots effort spearheaded by Mayor Steve Judy, Recreation Director Steve Anthony and community activist Sue Thilo was no match for opponents.

They included Concerned Businesses of North Idaho, the Kootenai County Property Owners Association and area health club owners who were concerned that the community center would compete for business. Opponents scared and confused voters by saying the center was too big for the community need and that the city would be forced to underwrite it with tax revenues when needed memberships didn’t materialize (an allegation also being made now).

Last year, the city, through the hard work of Mayor Sandi Bloem and others, was awarded a coveted $64 million grant and endowment for a community center– an outright gift that had only one requirement. The city had to raise $6 million locally to show its support for the center. Also, the city voted to spend $3 million from its rainy-day fund for site preparation that included a land swap with the Salvation Army that sidesteps the church-state issue.

Salvation Army Maj. John Chamness told me earlier this month that the Kroc Center would be the best community center in the Northwest.

Then came Larry Spencer.

Rather than attack the center head on, Spencer has been nibbling at the edges of the project, trying to tap into the dark side of Coeur d’Alene’s soul with his claims about the dirt used to fill the old gravel pit at the south end of Ramsey Park for the construction of the Kroc Center. Maj. Chamness and project engineer Steve Walker have addressed Spencer’s allegations. Yet, an anti-tax rant can always find some fertile ground in North Idaho.

We’ll know in six weeks whether the community will turn a deaf ear to the naysayers this time and provide the final $1.4 million for a center that’s long overdue for its children.


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