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Accepting county offer as Y solution misses mark

Talk about March madness.

The Spokane City Council is coming up against the final buzzer to accept or turn down Conservation Futures money to pay off its debt on the former YMCA. Recent nose counts suggest the outcome may be one more in a series of dubious decisions that have come out of city government regarding this matter.

Spokane County commissioners gave the council until Wednesday to decide whether to accept $4.3 million in Conservation Futures money, so the issue will be on the council’s agenda Monday evening.

Saying yes would resolve a dilemma for the city, which borrowed $4.3 million from its own garbage reserve account – a loan for which it has identified no attractive means of repayment. But although council members will be tempted, accepting the funding would be a mistake.

For one thing it would be paid out over the next 20 years at some $350,000 a year – which is about a fourth of what the Conservation Futures fund receives in property taxes. That’s an inexcusable bite to take for one acre of downtown property from a fund that is meant to feed the acquisition of natural areas and wildlife habitat threatened by development.

The whole debacle began nearly four years ago when, during a lustier economy, a private developer offered the Y $5.3 million for the property that it was vacating. The developer envisioned a high-rise condo project that included abundant public access to views of the upper Spokane River falls that tumble past the parcel.

The Spokane Park Board, which hadn’t been interested before, exercised its right to match the offer and sealed the deal with a $1 million down payment – and no idea how it would come up with the balance. The City Council ultimately bailed out the Park Board, but primarily out of sympathy for the Y.

Although the land hasn’t been in a natural state for more than a century, the Park Board now believes it should be returned to one. That, of course, means the Y building must be demolished at a cost that could be around $1 million, which the city also doesn’t have.

Meanwhile, the underlying prejudice against any kind of built development of the land leaves unaddressed a serious question about security in Riverfront Park. City Councilman Jon Snyder once noted that the site, reconfigured as a natural spot, could be an invitation to illicit activity such as drug dealing.

Or, as Councilman Richard Rush once put it, “It’s going to be imperative to have life and people and eyes there.”

No matter what happens, the City Council has a problem in the form of the YMCA building, and that problem is the consequence of previous misguided decisions.

The Conservation Futures offer may look like an easy way out, but it would be one more mistake with its own set of consequences.

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