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County to cover YMCA tab

$4.3 million will prevent condo tower

The Spokane County Commission agreed to pay $4.3 million to ensure a condo tower won’t be built on the site of the YMCA in downtown Spokane’s Riverfront Park.

In a split vote Tuesday, the commission said it will use that much of its Conservation Futures funds to pay off what is owed on a deal made by the Spokane Park Board to purchase the YMCA building and prevent a developer from building a 15-story tower on the site. The site is adjacent to Spokane Falls and surrounded by Riverfront Park.

The Spokane Park Board committed $1 million to block the condo tower. And last year, board members approached the county about using property taxes collected as part of the Conservation Futures program to pay the remaining $4.3 million.

If the county turned down the proposal, the Park Board would have lost the $1 million if no other funding sources were found by April 28.

Commissioners Todd Mielke and Mark Richard voted in favor of the plan and Bonnie Mager against it.

The decision commits the county to spending $350,000 a year for 20 years in Conservation Futures money, which comes from property tax revenue and is used to purchase land to preserve as natural areas.

“I feel this was brought to us in somewhat of an emergency and the Conservation Futures program was the last resort for (the Spokane Park Board) not to lose your $1 million,” Mager said. “With the economy tanking, the risk of a 15-story condo in the middle of the park doesn’t exist any longer.”

Richard he supported the plan as a way to preserve the vision of King Cole, who persuaded city officials in the 1970s to convert polluted railroad property into a park.

“My decision today is to serve those people 20 or 30 years from now,” Richard said. “If we can play a small part in carrying on (Cole’s) legacy, I will have done what I intended to do when I took office.”

Mager said she supports the acquisition of the building and converting the 0.8-acre parcel into parkland. “But it’s a question whether Conservation Futures funds should be used,” she said.

While the decision opens the door to funding, it came with several pages of conditions that city officials must meet.

Some requirements follow existing plans to use the building for YMCA administrative uses and leased office space to generate the revenue necessary to demolish the building within five years. The Park Board would also have to pay $100,000 a year to supplement those rents.

The final deal will also be put on hold for 30 days as the county waits to see if anyone files a lawsuit over the use of Conservation Future funds. If no challenge comes, the deal could go forth.

But if someone sues, the deal would have to wait until the lawsuit is resolved, said Jim Emacio, chief deputy civil prosecuting attorney.

The county would also retain final approval of the park’s design, which will include a kiosk showing all of the properties obtained through Conservation Futures.

The city would be required to help the county find grants to recoup some of the cost, which will eventually total $7 million after 20 years of interest is added.

Commissioners also added a requirement that the city pay for any remaining costs if a future County Commission decides to stop levying Conservation Futures taxes.

Furthermore, a majority of the Park Board and City Council must vote or send a letter indicating their support for the county’s decision. That support has been elusive in the past.

The Spokane City Council voted 4-3 in November against endorsing the idea to county commissioners. In a second vote, in December, the council unanimously voted to make “no official recommendation.”

Richard said those decisions were puzzling.

“I was looking for them to pressure us as to their opinion on the value of the park,” Richard said. “I’m somewhat disappointed that we didn’t get the direction from them.”

City Park Director Barry Russell thanked the commission for its Tuesday decision and said the November vote may have been influenced by the belief that other funding options were available.

“Since I arrived last May, I heard of all these other options. But none have come to fruition,” Russell said. “This is the mechanism we want to follow.”

Richard asked Russell whether the appraisal for $5.3 million was still valid. The appraisal was completed before the economic downturn.

“How do we defend spending that much money for this purpose?” asked Richard, who pointed out that $350,000 a year would use up about a quarter of the annual money generated for the Conservation Futures program.

Later, Richard answered his own question while acknowledging Mager’s concern about the drop in real estate values.

“I’m very confident that the value of this property … is higher than what the Conservation Fund program will invest,” he said. “Waterfront property – they ain’t making any more of it. In my mind, the value is going to do nothing but skyrocket.”

Mielke said he had no reservation committing funds to enhance Riverfront Park, which he called “one of the absolute jewels of this community.”

Mielke alluded to detractors, who have said the county could have purchased a huge parcel of natural land for the same money it will use to purchase the YMCA site. But he defended the decision.

“Do we want 1,000 acres used by 30 hikers a year or one acre used by 3 million people? Recognizing that we have an asset,” he said, “we should do everything we can to refine that asset.”

Reporter Thomas Clouse can be reached at (509) 459-5495 or by e-mail at tomc@spokesman.com.


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