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As YMCA deal wobbles, city eyes vague Plan B

Officials who spent $1 million on plan to convert property are still short $4.3 million

City leaders are worried that a plan to convert the downtown YMCA into a natural area of Riverfront Park could unravel into a complicated financial predicament.

County commissioners have yet to decide if they’ll use property taxes collected through the Conservation Futures program to buy the facility, which is adjacent to Spokane Falls and surrounded by Riverfront Park.

If the county votes against the deal and the city doesn’t use its own money, the city is left with an unappealing scenario.

If the purchase falls through, “our exit plan is to walk away” from the $1 million the city put down on the land “and probably be sued by the YMCA,” Spokane Park Board member Steve McNutt told City Council members Thursday.

That’s why many city officials say they strongly favor buying the property either way. But doing so without the help of Conservation Futures would carry its own risks: Property values have dropped, and some are skeptical the city could get the full $5.3 million back by reselling.

The Spokane Park Board put $1 million on the land two years ago to interrupt a $5.3 million deal the Y had with a developer who planned to build a condo tower on the site.

In a meeting with City Council members in 2006, park board members said they likely would ask voters for the remaining $4.3 million to complete the purchase. If voters turned down a proposal, they said they would borrow the money and sell the land to a private developer to get the money back.

But last year, the park board decided not to add the Y purchase into a $43 million tax measure for parks and pools, fearing voters – who ended up passing the measure by a healthy margin –would cringe at a larger amount.

Rather than a new tax, the board pursued Conservation Futures taxes, which are paid by county and city residents but controlled by county commissioners.

City Councilman Mike Allen expressed frustration about the lack of a solid back-up plan.

“What you’re telling me is you guys have done nothing,” he told park board members Thursday.

Parks officials said they do have an alternative: borrowing the money to buy the land. They’d pay it back by operating the facility as a recreation center and renting space back to the Y, which wants to maintain office space there. But that plan would work for only a few years, because the structure needs extensive remodeling.

“It’s a building that’s about to die a natural death,” McNutt said.

Keeping the Y open could raise $183,000 a year, which could be used to pay debt on the sale for a few years, said Spokane Park Director Barry Russell. That would give the city a chance to ask voters to buy the property. Failing that, the city could sell it to a developer.

Rig Riggins, president and CEO of the YMCA of the Inland Northwest, said if the city backs out, the Y would suffer. Even with the $1 million the city would forfeit, a new sale in the current market may not generate enough to cover the $5.3 million original price.

The Y is using the sale of the downtown YMCA and YWCA to build a new facility on North Monroe Street.

“The financing is in place regardless,” he said. “But it would put an additional fundraising burden on us that we aren’t expecting to have.”

Riggins added that he is confident the sale will be completed by the April 28 deadline.

Last summer, the county parks committee unanimously endorsed the purchase with Conservation Futures money. But some residents have since suggested the program should spend the money exclusively on land in a natural state. Others have noted that the $4.3 million needed to buy the parcel – which is less than an acre – could buy larger pieces of land elsewhere.

But parks leaders note that the land is in the heart of Riverfront Park, one of the region’s best assets, and they say park officials will work to secure grants that could cut the cost to Conservation Futures. They also argue that Y land would likely be enjoyed by far more taxpayers than parcels in remote areas.

If the county agrees to use Conservation Futures money, the city has promised to tear down the YMCA within five years and to restore the acreage to a natural state.

County Commissioner Todd Mielke has indicated he favors using the conservation program to buy the Y. Commissioners Mark Richard and Bonnie Mager have given mixed signals.

Mager said this week she remains undecided. Her ultimate concern, she said, is to ensure that Conservation Futures isn’t undermined.

“It is a very great piece of property that should be preserved,” Mager said. “I’m still just mulling over if Conservation Futures is the right mechanism to do it.”

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.


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