December 18, 2009 in City

Mobius, city of Spokane part ways

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Organizers have pulled the plug on negotiations to develop a science center in Riverfront Park, and will look to identify a new location for the project by early next year.

Officials with Mobius, the nonprofit organization raising money for the center, said the decision will allow them to move forward more quickly with a scaled-back proposal that could open as soon as 2011. Mobius now plans to remodel an existing building in phases, instead of building a new center all at once.

The move puts an end to six years of sometimes contentious negotiations with the city of Spokane, and comes after months of divided votes over the latest lease proposal from the city Park Board.

“This is an amicable parting of ways,” said Dr. Neil Worrall, president of the Mobius board of directors.

Still, he noted that the recent Park Board negotiations had played a role in the decision. “It became clear to us and to the Park Board that the shared vision we had a few years ago … was losing some of its support,” he said.

Positive reaction

Park Board members on both sides of the recent debates said they thought it was a good move.

“I think the whole process was going in circles,” said Kimberly Morse, a board member who had opposed Mobius’ efforts to negotiate changes in the most recent lease proposal with the city. “This is like a marriage. If you’re not getting along even before you sign the agreement, should you be signing the agreement? It didn’t seem like a good marriage.”

Board member Ross Kelley, who voted in favor of continued negotiations, said the plan for Mobius to build a center in “bite-sized” stages probably makes sense. He said that he thought the city and Mobius were near a deal, but that it’s more important for the science center to move ahead than it is to put it in Riverfront Park.

“I think we were close,” he said. “I think we could have put together an agreement that both parties could (accept).”

Worrall said several elements played a role in the decision, including the economy and the ability to raise money for a roughly $27 million project. The new plan, to remodel an existing building in stages, would allow Mobius to open a first phase with about $11.5 million it has raised so far, he said.

Mobius is exploring several buildings that it could remodel, and it hopes to announce a site early in 2010 with an opening the following year. The projected opening for a Riverfront Park project was 2013.

In works for years

The idea of building a science center in the park, on the north bank of the Spokane River, goes back at least a decade. In 2003, the city selected Mobius to develop a center on the 5.7-acre parcel, but progress has consistently been stalled over fundraising, lease arrangements and other issues.

Critics have raised concerns about whether the project would pay for itself, and some opposed plans for private development on the city land to help support the center.

Most recently, the Park Board and Mobius wrangled over a proposed lease and whether the organization could make changes to a deal made in August that some Park Board members had considered final.

The 17-member Mobius board includes Anne Cowles, wife of Spokesman-Review Publisher Stacey Cowles.

Mobius and supporters on the Park Board argued that the changes would be relatively minor, including provisions involving the use of leftover environmental cleanup funds and the implications for tax credits on the project given the city’s ownership of the land. A divided Park Board voted 6-5 last week to allow Mobius and city staffers to negotiate the final points.

Some on the Park Board were unhappy, saying the proposed changes amounted to an extensive revision to an agreement they believed was final.

“We spent well over a year negotiating what we thought was a final and last offer,” said City Councilman Bob Apple, who also sits on the Park Board. “It went wrong again.”

Worrall said Mobius has seen a strong demand for a science center. The organization, which operates a children’s museum in River Park Square, ran a two-month mini-center at NorthTown Mall last summer and attracted 10,000 people. He said that the best way to meet that demand is for Mobius to move ahead without the city.

“We really look at this as a very positive development,” he said.

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