Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Saturday, January 26, 2008

"Hawkins development: Residents query commissioners on public bond"

From last Thursday's Whitman County Gazette:
A standing room only crowd packed commissioners’ chambers at the county courthouse in Colfax Tuesday afternoon to gather more information on the county’s proposal to float more than $10 million in bonds to set up infrastructure at a shopping center on the Idaho stateline.

The county was asked two weeks ago by Hawkins Companies, Boise, to pay for roads, lighting and water and sewer systems for the company’s proposed 700,000 sq. ft. strip mall.

“I’m worried that we don’t have answers to specific questions, and we’re a week away from this decision,” said Pullman Resident Carol Chipman.

Most in attendance sought clarification.

Chipman asked for clarification on the company’s proposal on the bond, which delayed payment of the principle until the bonds mature.

Cheryl Morgan, also of Pullman, asked for clarification on the company’s construction cost estimates.

Hawkins Spokesman Jeff DeVoe called the bond and construction figures he put forth two weeks ago a “sketch on a bar napkin,” and not hard figures.

He said county bonding consultant Jack McLaughlin, VP of public financing for DA Davidson in Spokane, explained to him the necessity to pay a portion of the principle and interest over the term of the bonds.

DeVoe added the private-public cooperation between the company and the county has been in “infantile planning stages for a long time”.

Pullman Developer Duane Brelsford worried that obligating public funds for a private development would set a “dangerous precedent.”

Brelsford said his company, Corporate Pointe Development, has several large projects planned in and outside of Pullman.

“We’ll of course assume we would be treated the same,” he said.

Brelsford added dedicating funds to Hawkins would mean the county would have to, in fairness, extend similar cooperation to other developers looking to site in the corridor.

“If we choose to go that direction, I think we’re going to need a lot more than $10 million,” he said.

Thornton resident Carolyn Kiesz doubted the wisdom of dedicating funds to the retail development in the face of a nationwide economic slump.

“Now is not the time to encumber the taxpayer with this debt,” said Kiesz.

She suggested a manufacturing company would better benefit the regional economy, as it would close the trade gap and not encourage a shopping center filled with “cheap foreign-made goods.”

Kiesz also noted that jobs from the retail development would not pay enough to be of significant value to job-seeking residents of other parts of the county.

Morgan questioned the reasoning for the public-private partnership.

Morgan cited news accounts that said the increased costs in construction, and in the company’s pursuit of water for the site, as built-in costs the company could well have anticipated.

“They’re not new to this process,” said Morgan. “It makes me wonder if this was the whole plan in the first place.”

DeVoe replied that the lengthy appeals process over the transfer of four water rights to service the site was new to him.

“Three years ago, if you would have told me the interesting road we would have been down on the water issue, I would have laughed,” said DeVoe.

The company last July received approval from the county Water Conservancy Board to transfer four water rights.

Three of the Conservancy Board’s decisions were upheld by the state Department of Ecology, and one was denied because the DOE found the company did not adequately address pumping groundwater in drier summer months.

Hawkins has appealed that decision.

The city of Moscow appealed the other three on the basis that such a development would further drain the region’s declining aquifer levels.

Conservancy Board Chair Ed Schultz questioned the wisdom of issuing millions of dollars worth of bonds without any guarantee that the development would be supplied with water.

Next week’s announcement, Commissioner Michael Largent explained, would declare whether or not the county intends to float the bonds.

Commissioner Greg Partch explained the company must have water rights in hand and an anchor tenant committed to occupancy before the county would issue the bonds. To date, only Lowe’s home improvement stores has committed to occupy the space.

DeVoe assured the crowd that the company will not ask for the bond without water and that anchor tenant.

“If I’m a taxpayer, I’m going to ask myself, ‘what if Hawkins goes away, are we left to pay off this bond?’” he said.

DeVoe said if the company acquires the water rights, it would then donate them to the county, as state requirements prohibit a private company from providing water and sewer service.

That transfer, he added, would not be as difficult a process as the company’s pursuit.

Kiesz then asked if commissioners would be open to other types of businesses in the corridor, or if this was an effort to help out the company.

“No one else has come forward, that I know of,” said Largent. “Whether Hawkins makes a profit or not is not our concern.”

Partch said commissioners were “not married” to this project or to the Hawkins company itself.

“We are married to the corridor,” he said. “Our future is hanging out there.”

He pointed to the lengthy re-zoning of land in the corridor as proof that commissioners focused on it as their main focus in economic development. County code was shifted for more than two years to allow such zoning.

“People in the past didn’t attempt development in the corridor because they couldn’t develop anything in this county,” said Commissioner Jerry Finch.

Finch pointed to developments such as the Garage Mahal storage units and James Toyota’s planned move to the corridor from Moscow as evidence that those re-zoning efforts have paid off.

Any growth, retail or otherwise, in the corridor, Partch noted, will help to stave off the impacts of a national recession on the Palouse. He also pointed out that the county’s treasury was seriously impacted by voter-approved initiatives that removed tax revenue and limited tax increases.

“If we put together this shopping center and they do it the classy way that they do, it will set the tenor for all development in the corridor,” said Finch.

Without such a development, Finch worried that in 20 years the corridor would be filled with “ramshackle steel buildings sitting in a hodgepodge.”

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