Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"Commissioners hear from locals on $10M Hawkins project bond"

That's karma for you, Michael. I caught you yawning in my picture, but Joe Smillie caught me with my eyes closed in the picture on the front page of the Gazette. That must have been a really boring meeting!

From today's Whitman County Gazette:
The clock is ticking on Whitman County’s hopes of attracting a large retail center, commissioners said Monday afternoon.

“Time is of the essence,” Commissioner Michael Largent said to nearly a dozen concerned citizens at Whitman County Courthouse.

Boise-based Hawkins Companies last week asked the county to consider floating a bond of more than $10 million to fund roads, lighting and water and sewer services to the company’s proposed 700,000 sq. ft. shopping center in the Pullman-Moscow corridor at the Idaho state line.

“If we aren’t willing to step up and be involved, we don’t deserve to have it,” said Commissioner Jerry Finch. “But if we have to prostitute Whitman County for this, I’m not afraid to back out of it.”

The clock is ticking on the idea, Finch later explained, because the company hopes to begin moving dirt on the project as soon as June.

Finch added the cost of construction has “ballooned” so much over the past few years, it could potentially cut into Hawkins’ future profits. Delays could mean a further escalation in construction costs, forcing the company to cut its losses and abandon the project.

Also driving up the costs are lengthy appeals in the company’s attempt to attain water for the shopping center.

“I’m not sure what the outcome of this project would be without public participation,” added Largent.

Commissioners slotted 30 minutes in their regular Monday meeting to receive input from the public whose tax dollars would be bonded in such a proposal.

“We don’t have all the answers,” said Largent. “That’s what this is for.”

While none of the citizens in attendance at the meeting spoke out specifically in opposition to the proposal, several did question the wisdom of committing public funds to the private development.

“It almost sounds like they got in over their head in a down market and they are asking the citizens of Whitman County to bail them out,” said Colfax resident Bob Schultz.

“I guess in a perfect world, they should do this 100 percent on their dime,” replied Finch. “We can play chicken with them and lose or we can work to help them out.”

Colfax resident Don Nelson asked why Hawkins is the only private development to receive financial support from the county.

“This is not unusual,” said Commissioner Greg Partch. “This is done throughout the state in drawing large business in.”

Shultz asked about the possibility of reducing Hawkins taxes instead of laying out the bonds. Both Finch and Treasurer Robert Lothspeich said that was out of their hands, as only the legislature can allow tax exemptions.

Tom Forbes, a member of the citizen group Businesses and Residents for Economic Opportunity said on a flight for his employer, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, he noted a visible state line from the air above the Palouse. That line, he said, was defined by the lights of retail developments in Moscow up to the state line.

Forbes, who also writes a weblog on political and business issues on the Palouse, called the development a “logical and natural extension of shopping development of the Pullman-Moscow Highway in Moscow.”

Pullman Honda Owner April Coggins expressed confidence on behalf of BREO that commissioners would not invest the money of Whitman County’s citizens in a shaky venture.

She added that, apart from the lofty price tag, building the infrastructure would be similar to typical county business.

“This infrastructure is no different then a gravel road for a farmer to get to his field,” said Coggins.

Director of Administrative Services for the county, Sharron Cunningham, emphasized the county would own the infrastructure and charge Hawkins for its use.

The roads would be cared for like any others in the county’s charge. The water lines, commissioners explained, would carry water that would eventually be owned by a yet-to-be created water and sewer district.

The deal hinges on a pending decision from the state Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB) on four transfers of water rights to provide Hawkins the water.

“We’re not going to make an investment until those rights are secured,” said Largent.

Those water rights were approved by the county Water Conservancy Board last July. After reviewing the conservancy board’s work, the state Department of Ecology (DOE) affirmed the board’s decisions on three transfers and denied a fourth.

That transfer, from the Jones family of Pullman, amounts to nearly 60 percent of the water Hawkins is seeking for the site.

Hawkins appealed the DOE’s decision to overrule the Jones right, while the city of Moscow appealed the affirmations of the other three. Included is a swap of 100 acre-feet right from Hawkins to the town of Colton for a right of 22-acre feet.

The PCHB is scheduled to hear those appeals June 2-6.

Finch said if the PCHB water rights are approved, Hawkins would then transfer those rights, without cost, to the county. Conservancy Board Chair Ed Schultz said to his knowledge, such a transfer would have to go before the county Water Conservancy Board.

Ed Schultz asked if commissioners had requested Gov. Chris Gregoire to put the appeals on the top of the priority list.

Partch said they have asked that of the governor’s office, though not in writing.

County Prosecutor Denis Tracy said that actually a new water and sewer district would have to be formed to receive those rights and charge service fees.

Pasco resident Gary Kopf, who also owns land in the corridor near the Hawkins site wondered about using county funds to help Pullman expand its water and sewer service to the corridor.

Public Works Director Mark Storey said once the county has the rights, it could seek out additional water rights to further service developments on the east end of the corridor. Having a starting point there, and a starting point in Pullman would lower the cost of laying pipe all along the corridor.

Storey added it would likely be easier for the county to get the rights approved, as it simply has more time to shepherd an application through the process than Hawkins.

Commissioners have scheduled another public comment period next Tuesday, Jan. 22, at 2:30 p.m. in the courthouse.

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