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Council considers Y’s fate

Conservation Futures funding stipulates building’s removal

Spokane leaders have three weeks to decide the future of the downtown YMCA or risk forfeiting $1 million.

The Spokane Park Board put the money down on the Y, which is surrounded by Riverfront Park, in 2006 in an effort to prevent private development on the land. To avoid losing the down payment, the Spokane City Council must come up with the remaining $4.4 million by May 4.

The leading plan to do that – borrowing the money from the city’s investment fund – requires five votes from a City Council that has been wary of the deal from the beginning.

Backing out of the transaction, Park Board members say, likely would mean not only losing the down payment, but risking a lawsuit from the nonprofit group. The Y is depending on the completion of the sale to finance its new recreation center on North Monroe.

Council President Joe Shogan expressed confidence Monday that there will be enough votes to approve the deal.

“The Y is going to get paid,” he said.

What could still be in the balance, however, is how the city will pay off the debt.

Spokane County commissioners have offered to pay the city’s debt with the existing Conservation Futures property tax, but some City Council members object to a requirement to tear down the 42-year-old YMCA within five years in order to restore the land to a natural condition.

Commissioners stipulated that the money would not be released unless the City Council voices support. The council is scheduled to decide if they’ll accept the money on Monday.

Councilman Richard Rush appears to be the swing vote. Rush said in a perfect world the YMCA would not have been built so close to the falls. But he questions the wastefulness of tearing down a building that could have a much longer life.

“The Park Board has an excellent vision for what the park should be. But that’s not the hand we’ve been dealt,” Rush said.

Rush has pointed to the renovation of a California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco as an example of a building that was remodeled in an environmentally sensitive way.

“We don’t have the revenue to do that, but that’s not to say the Y Building could not be made into a more sustainable, energy-efficient building,” Rush said.

Park Board member Steve McNutt has argued that it could cost about $20 million to remodel the Y and that poor parking and other factors make the site undesirable for a business or attraction such as a museum.

Without Conservation Futures taxes, the parks department would have to find another way to make the annual payment, which is expected to cost between $280,000 and $330,000 a year. The park department estimates that about $180,000 annually could be earned by maintaining the Y as a recreation center and leasing a portion of it as office space. The rest of the debt would have to be paid using park department reserve funds, selling other park land, cutting park programming or putting the Y back up for sale.

Rig Riggins, president and CEO of the YMCA of the Inland Northwest, said the Y hopes to lease offices in the old YMCA for the next three to five years.

The Park Board last week voted unanimously to accept a County Commission requirement promising to cover remaining payments on the debt if at some time in the future the Conservation Futures tax is discontinued. City and county park officials say an end to the tax is unlikely anytime soon, given the strong support the tax received in the last advisory vote in 2007.

Councilman Mike Allen said he supports buying the Y because the city shouldn’t break the sales agreement. But he said he has strong reservations about using Conservation Futures taxes to buy a structure that will be torn down. He also questions if other options have been thoroughly explored.

“It may be the best decision possible,” Allen said. “But we at least have to vet that out.”

Park officials say using Conservation Futures would allow the city to pay the debt without raising taxes or straining the park budget.

“I just don’t understand how someone would say, ‘OK, we’ll give you the loan, but we’re not going to allow you to use Conservation Futures,’ ” said Park Director Barry Russell.

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


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