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City could sell YMCA

Sat., June 20, 2009

On verge of buying building in Riverfront Park, leaders are open to private ownership

The Spokane City Council is poised to buy the YMCA property 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 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,” City Councilman Mike Allen said. “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 riverbank 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 down $1 million 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 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,” Councilman Al French said.

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 they required the Park Board to finance the project upfront, to be repaid over time from Conservation Futures. The commissioners’ decision meant park leaders needed a loan from the 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,” City Councilman Steve Corker said.

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 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 the 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 that 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.

This week, the Park Board 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. It also set aside $600,000 of park reserves, $1 million unspent from the 2007 park bond and 7.2 acres of parkland 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 that 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.

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