West Central neighborhood leaders are accusing city officials of raiding neighborhood renewal funds for improvements to Riverfront Park.
Earlier this month, the Spokane City Council approved the use of $500,000 from the city’s West Quadrant tax-increment financing district to help pay to repair the worn pedestrian suspension bridge crossing the north channel of the Spokane River in Riverfront Park.
The council also is expected to consider spending $511,000 from the West Quadrant fund on sewer and water connections for the Sportsplex just north of Riverfront Park.
The Spokane City Council approved the use of those funds after more than an hour of discussion at a meeting last month in a 5-2 vote. Creation of the tax collection district for projects aiming to boost the West Central, Emerson-Garfield and Riverside neighborhoods along with the creation of an advisory council to help decide how to spend the money was approved by the City Council in 2007.
George Craig, an original member of the advisory committee, recalled that the advisory council outlined a list of projects on which the money could be spent.
“At that time it was supposed to be those and only those projects associated with the (taxing district),” Craig said. “A lot of thought went in to that original list and to me they were things that actually needed to be done.”
“I’m not real comfortable with them not being done and the money going to different projects,” he said.
Neither the Riverfront Park bridge nor the Sportsplex were included on the list of projects by the advisory council.
However, city officials said the Riverfront Park projects fit within the parameters of projects eligible for the tax money meant to help the neighborhood, said Garrett Jones, acting director of Parks and Recreation.
“We just treated it from a Parks and Recreation division standpoint as a grant opportunity,” Jones said. “We were just looking for any potential funding mechanism that made sense.”
The West Quadrant money comes from property taxes collected within the boundaries of the district through tax-increment financing. As property values in the district rise beyond the value at the time the district was created, half of the property taxes generated from the rise in value go to the district.
The advisory committee eventually lost its members as terms expired and other people didn’t seek seats. The committee was without members until last year.
In May, the advisory committee supported using its fund for the planned Sportsplex. The money would be withdrawn from the fund over the next 5 years.
The fund now has approximately $830,000 with $500,000 approved for the bridge and $17,000 approved for Dutch Jake’s Park, said Kevin Freibott, a Spokane city planner.
The committee has recommended spending the rest of the money in the fund, in addition to approximately $200,000 in future dollars, on the Sportsplex. The City Council has yet to approve the move.
Council members, Kate Burke and Karen Stratton voted against the proposal.
“There are neighborhoods in this community that get overlooked time and time again and West Central is one of them,” said Stratton, who represents the West Central neighborhood.
She does not oppose the bridge project but “on a fairness level,” pointed to projects on the list such as improvements to Broadway Street. Other projects include traffic calming improvements, lighting and landscaping to specific blocks in all three neighborhoods, north bank trail enhancements, and specific intersection improvements.
Parks can find the money somewhere else to fix the pedestrian bridge, Stratton said.
Mayoral candidate Kelly Cruz is on the West Central Neighborhood Council and a non-voting member of the tax district advisory committee.
The advisory committee had no members for four years and so money accrued in the fund couldn’t be spent, Cruz said.
It has been hard to get accurate numbers of what is in the account and growth projections, Cruz said.
He called the bridge project, “more regional and not neighborhood oriented.”
The four West Central community members who spoke during public testimony all opposed the use of special tax district funds.
Arielle Anderson has lived in West Central for seven years and called the proposal “quite offensive” in her testimony.
The bridge “absolutely will not impact West Central” in an economic way, she said.
Information about the West Quadrant TIF Funding on the City of Spokane website has three guiding principles. One reads “conduct public participation and outreach program to implement neighborhood public investment and encourage private development,” Anderson noted.
“The city never came to a neighborhood council meeting to talk about TIF funding,” Anderson said.
Projects funded by the tax district are supposed to be “shovel ready,” Anderson said. “I don’t even know what that means or how to get there.”
Shovel ready projects already are planned and designed by an outside entity, like the city or a private business, then that entity can ask for TIF funding.
It’s the city’s responsibly to educate the community on the process, Anderson said.
Councilwoman Burke agreed. It’s not very encouraging when the city doesn’t help the community get to the shovel ready projects status, Burke said.
Stratton is taking action to help educate the community.
“I’m taking the responsibility,” Stratton said. She is planning an informational session next fall for the Neighborhood Project Advisory Committee.
Jessie Norris, a West Central resident for more than 40 years, agreed that there needed to be community input.
“I would say that most people in West Central have probably never heard of this TIF,” Norris said to the council.
“Riverfront Park is a project that has access to other sources on funding,” Norris said. “The West Central District has long been an area plagued by disinvestment.”
Both Norris and Anderson referenced the 2007 list of projects noting that none of them has been completed and should be the top priority.
Founder of the Greenstone Corp., Jim Frank, is the developer behind Kendall Yards, which is in the West Central Neighborhood.
Frank grew up in the West Central area and calls the changes he’s seen over the year a result of a “cycle of disinvestment.”
The revitalization funds are “just being used to fund whatever comes along,” Frank said.
“The public has to be a participant in the economic development of West Central,” he said. With a large portion of the West Central residents under the poverty line investments are key, Frank said.
“They don’t have a voice, and because they’re voiceless it’s easy to take their resources and use it for something else,” Frank said.
West Central resident Judith Gilmore has been a part of the neighborhood council since 1974. She recalls the variety of developers who tried to develop the area.
The concern when the TIF was set up was that the Kendall Yards development would raise property taxes without benefiting West Central, Gilmore said.
“We may not fully understand it or how it’s going to be used but we know it’s ours – to be used in our neighborhood,” Gilmore said of the funds.
“I’m concerned about the direction the TIF took with the bridge in Riverfront Park,” Gilmore said. “I don’t believe that the committee is hearing enough from the neighborhood.”
There are different project areas within the West Quadrant TIF district with differing eligibility requirements, Freibott said.
The project area list is the same list that citizens have argued are specific projects.
The improvements can include, “crosswalk treatments, street furniture, lighting, bike and pedestrian infrastructure and improvements and underground utilities,” according to TIF documents.
The north suspension bridge meets these requirements because it is solely for pedestrian traffic, Freibott said.
High voltage power lines run under the bridge constituting a utility, he added.
The north suspension bridge was closed in April until further notice due to the need for repairs.
The safety issues that caused the bridge closure were not anticipated to happen as soon as they did, said Councilwoman Candace Mumm, who also represents the area.
Mumm said she voted for the use of funds because of the unanimous approval from the advisory committee and the Parks Department in May.
“I committed to working with all three neighborhoods to accelerate the projects on the list,” Mumm said.
She asked city staff to help come up with a prioritized list, Mumm said.
Bridge repairs are estimated to cost $1.73 million with $500,000 from a state grant and $730,000 from local and private funds.
In 2014, voters approved a $64 million bond to redevelop Riverfront Park. Parks leaders did not plan to use bond money to repair the north suspension bridge.
Construction on the pedestrian bridge is expected to be underway this fall, Jones said.
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