June 19, 2009

YMCA headed for city ownership, but maybe not for long

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The Spokane City Council is set to buy the YMCA in Riverfront Park on Monday, but that’s no guarantee of public ownership.

A majority of council members said this week that they wouldn’t rule out selling the property – adjacent to Spokane Falls and completely surrounded by the park – to a private party if a study recommends such a move.

“At this particular point, I think all options are on the table,” said City Councilman Mike Allen. “I’m still interested to see what the study will produce about the highest and best community use.”

But former County Commissioner John Roskelley said the land should remain publicly owned. That’s the same position offered last year by King Cole, who led the effort to create Riverfront Park.

“Removal of that building and opening of that river bank is one more step in making that park the absolute best experience for the citizens,” Roskelley said. “We seem to be doing the exact opposite of progressive communities with our waterfront.”

It’s been three years since the Park Board put $1 million down on the land to prevent a developer from building a condo on the site. The city has until Wednesday to abide by the sales agreement.

City Council members said this week that they lean in favor of paying off the outstanding $4.4 million on the deal – largely to avoid wronging the YMCA.

“The city made a commitment. Whether we like the way the commitment was made, I think we have to honor that,” said Councilman Al French.

After it decided to buy the land, the Park Board focused on winning county approval for using already-levied Conservation Futures taxes, and opted not to include the money to conclude the sale in a park bond approved by voters in 2007.

County officials agreed to the request, but required the Park Board to finance the project upfront, to be repaid over time from Conservation Futures. Commissioners’ decision meant park leaders had to seek a loan from City Council.

“I’m really concerned about how the city could become obligated for such a large amount without a vote of the council or the vote of the people,” said City Councilman Steve Corker.

Park leaders respond that the deal on the table with Conservation Futures will make the city whole while completing a long-held vision for Riverfront Park. They point to a public opinion poll conducted in December that showed strong support for making the land part of the park.

If the land ends up in private ownership, the Park Board may consider asking City Council to return the park’s $1 million down payment, said member Randy Cameron.

“There would be some real, real passionate discussions about it,” Cameron said.

On Monday, the council is expected to consider six items that would conclude the sale and stipulate the next steps.

The needed $4.4 million would be taken from a $40 million solid waste reserve fund. The City Council will wait until the YMCA study, which could take six months, to decide if it accepts Conservation Futures money. Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley said if the county money is accepted, it would repay the loan over 10 to 15 years at about $350,000 a year.

With Conservation Futures, the old Y must be torn down within seven years to return the property to a natural state. If not, the council will have to find other money – or sell it.

Councilman Richard Rush said he won’t support the use of Conservation Futures because he believes the county program should be used to buy land already in a natural state. The county faces the same argument in a lawsuit filed by former City Councilman Steve Eugster. If the Y must be sold, Rush said he would only favor selling it to a nonprofit group.

“I’m not saying it shouldn’t be part of Riverfront Park, I’m just saying Conservation Futures shouldn’t be the tool used to pay for it,” Rush said.

Rush said he believes some developers prefer using conservation money in the urban core so it doesn’t tie up land on the outskirts of town.

Commissioner Todd Mielke, who likened Rush’s concerns to a “conspiracy theory,” said because most Conservation Futures land is several miles from the center of town, the purchase of waterfall adjacent property is a big benefit to urban dwellers like Rush.

“He should be able to get on public transit or his bike to access and enjoy these open spaces provided with taxpayer money,” Mielke said.

This week, the Park Board agreed to give up control of the land to the City Council until the loan is completely repaid.

It also voted that if the council accepts Conservation Futures to pay off the loan, they would take over payments if the county were to discontinue the program. The board set aside $600,000 of park reserves, $1 million unspent from the 2007 park bond and 7.2 acres of park land north of Riverfront Park as collateral.

“For good reason, the City Council just doesn’t want to be holding the responsibility and take that out of the general budget,” Cameron said.

The land collateral, however, isn’t guaranteed. City rules don’t allow park land to be sold without a vote – and officials say if the land is needed, voters would have to OK it. If voters reject the land as collateral, other city money would have to be used.

County leaders say given strong public support for Conservation Futures, a suspension of the program is highly unlikely. And if it is suspended, city Park Director Barry Russell said the Park Board would prefer making the annual payment out of the park budget.

Park Board member Steve McNutt, who has led the board’s effort to win support for Conservation Futures, said he has “his fingers crossed” that the Y will stay in public ownership.

“I think 10 or 20 years from now people will look back on this as a courageous and visionary decision,” McNutt.


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