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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Downtown Pullman project flops with zero bidders willing to take it on; the city is determined to revitalize anyway

On Wednesday, the time had come for City of Pullman officials to open bids from contractors for a project to revamp its downtown into a beautiful, economic driver.

But they had nothing to open.

“I was shocked,” said Mike Urban, city administrator.

Since 2019, City of Pullman officials have met with consultants in traffic modeling, utilities design, landscape architecture and public engagement to develop a concept design that will revamp its downtown core.

Wider sidewalks, updated roads, a pedestrian bridge and residential buildings are just a few aspects of the project that is intended to attract business, people and economic prosperity to the Palouse town.

This was made possible by approximately $9 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. According to Urban, the request for proposals disclosed about $8 million to be spent on the project.

City officials expected general contractors to design and work with subcontractors to put together bids that would have included the scope of work and their estimated cost. Then, the city would analyze the bids, ensure their cost estimates are accurate and their scope of work is feasible, and choose which one is best to put under contract.

In his 20-year career, Urban has seen only one other request for proposal garner zero bids. As he points out, this is rare, because bidders are not limited by what they submit in their bids.

“To get no bids, not even an outrageous one from someone saying they’ll do it for $200 million, is just so uncommon,” he said.

This is a setback to the project that was already operating on a tight deadline. Through community input, the city hoped to complete construction work by the first Washington State University football game of 2024. This is because games are a major driver for business, said Tawny Szumlas, owner of Rico’s Public House in downtown Pullman.

“We get hit with our six biggest weekends here – it’s a lot of money,” Szumlas said. “So it makes a big difference for us.”

The city has worked closely with Welch Comer & Associates, Inc., which designed the project. Matt Gillis, vice president of the firm, said he is sensitive to the worries of business owners.

“We talked to a lot of the businesses about the impact of the football season, and it was substantial, especially the restaurants,” Gillis said. “We want to accommodate that as best we can.”

Next football season is when the changes to the Pac-12 will apply. WSU Cougars fans are eager to understand what a fall of football will be like without the inter-conference matchups that attract tens of thousands of fans.

Szumlas, who serves on the Board of Directors of the Pullman Chamber of Commerce, said these games are very important to local commerce.

“We have, like, 32,000 people that live here, then all of the sudden we have an extra 30,000 people come, and they all want to eat and drink at the same time,” she said.

Though Szumlas is thankful for the games and the business the university brings, she hopes Pullman can rely less on them in the future.

“I’m super excited about the downtown project, because we need a little facelift,” she said. “Look around at all these other towns that are reviving their downtown. Maybe there’s hope that we won’t be forced to live for those six weekends every year.”

Welch Comer & Associates had a part in many of those other downtown projects brought up by Szumlas.

Colville, Chewelah, Post Falls, Rathdrum, Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry, Hayden, Moscow and Lewiston all have downtown projects the firm has worked on, according to Gillis.

“This is the type of work we’re geared for,” he said. “We’re very familiar and passionate about this type of work.”

Despite the impressive resumé of the firm, Pullman faces a unique situation. If the fallout of the Pac-12 causes a drop in attendance at sporting events, businesses would struggle, Szumlas said.

“We’re going to be coming out of our really sucky summer because of the construction and then not having those big football weekends – that could be really bad,” she said.

Gillis recognizes the potential problems.

“We’re working hard to minimize them, and ensuring the schedule is maximized for their benefit is one of our goals,” he said.

One option to minimize effects on businesses could be to push the timeline to another year. Mallory Nash, executive director of the Downtown Pullman Association, said this is worthy of consideration.

“Whether the project proceeds this year or the next, the crucial aspect is the city’s continued dedication to support revitalization efforts in our downtown,” Nash said in a statement. “The timing, while important, should not compromise the quality and success of the project.”

But next year is the latest for the project. According to Urban, the federal rescue plan funds either have to be spent or under contract by the end 2024.

City officials know of four contractors who have done work to formulate a bid, and are talking with them to understand what barriers kept them from submitting.

These discussions may result in negotiations with contractors, Gillis said.

“We’re trying to address their issues and see if we can come up with a contract at a price that we can afford,” he said.

As of now, he is still hopeful to maintain the timeline.

Gillis said some barriers can be overcome. If the price point was not right or some tweaks need to be made to the design, they still can be.

Insurmountable barriers could be a certain building material that cannot be obtained because of supply chain disruptions, for instance.

Though he has no clear indication of what barriers are at play, Urban is determined to revitalize downtown Pullman and not let the funds go unspent.

“We’re trying to save this thing,” he said. “When the government hands you money, I’ll be darned if I’m going to hand it back.”