The massive makeover of McEuen Park and Front Avenue in downtown Coeur d’Alene has been a prickly political issue the past two years and continues to stir up dust in this fall’s mayoral and City Council races.
If voters want a close look at how nearly $20 million in public funds is being spent on the project, the city has three words: Come on down.
The new park won’t open until late next spring, but on Saturday afternoon the public is welcome to walk through the construction site next to Tubbs Hill and see the amenities going in. Basketball and tennis courts are done, a sprawling new playground is just about finished, and crews are working on a large summer splash pad for kids, a picnic pavilion, a dog park, an amphitheater, a boardwalk, a veterans memorial and much more.
Visitors also can take a peek at the new parking lot tucked beneath a rebuilt Front Avenue – a design and engineering feat that’s largely hidden from view. Up above, a wide, landscaped promenade will run parallel to Front, buffering the park from downtown.
“This is a great opportunity for the community to fully understand the magnitude of the project and the favorable impact it will have on the area,” said Keith Erickson, spokesman for the Lake City Development Corporation, the city’s urban renewal agency.
Officials hope residents also come away with a better understanding of how the construction budget breaks down. That has been part of the controversy surrounding the project, with critics relentlessly questioning the price tag.
Bill Greenwood, the city’s interim parks director, paused during a media tour Thursday to explain the numbers.
“It got under my skin a little bit – there’s this discussion about a $20 million park,” Greenwood said. “The park didn’t cost that.”
The park features add up to $8.5 million. Another $9 million will be spent on the rebuild of Front Avenue, nearly 550 parking spaces and extensive utility work in and around the site. The remaining $2.1 million goes into design costs.
About 80 percent of the project is financed through an urban renewal district, and that has ignited debate in the community about dedicating so much of that tax revenue to public improvements in one spot.
Others defend the investment, saying McEuen should be a focal point for Coeur d’Alene because of its prominent location next to downtown, the lakeshore and the ever-popular Tubbs Hill. City leaders long looked upon McEuen as falling short of its potential.
“It is one of our most valuable public spaces, there’s no doubt about it,” Mayor Sandi Bloem said last fall when work was beginning on the project.
Although construction is well past the halfway mark, questions linger over how the city moved the project forward. The City Council pushed ahead with McEuen on a series of 4-3 votes, with opponents arguing in vain to put it up for a citywide advisory vote. Now, with election day 3 ½ weeks away, some candidates are making McEuen a key talking point in their campaigns.
If voters want to measure for themselves if the emerging park, parking lots and Front Avenue are worth the money and effort, Saturday is their chance.