Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Saturday, January 26, 2008

"Hawkins, Moscow will talk water"

From last Wednesday's Moscow-Pullman Daily News:
Developer, city will try to resolve differences next week in Spokane; Whitman County residents voice concerns about plan to pay for infrastructure

Hawkins Companies representatives said Tuesday they plan to meet with officials from the city of Moscow in an attempt to resolve water-rights issues surrounding the company's plans to build a shopping center just west of the Washington-Idaho state line.

Hawkins spokesman Jeff DeVoe said Moscow is seeking mediation with the company in an effort to reach an agreement over four separate water rights that are being appealed with the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board.

"We are willing to listen and come in with an open mind," DeVoe said after a public meeting in Colfax to discuss the proposed sale of $10.5 million in bonds to build infrastructure at the development site. "We are a shopping center developer and that's our goal. We are willing to do whatever makes sense."

Moscow City Attorney Randy Fife said the meeting is scheduled for Tuesday in Spokane.

Fife said a mediator will direct the meeting, ask questions, and offer scenarios and solutions until a resolution is reached. The Moscow City Council would have to approve the resolution before it could become official.

If a compromise or deal isn't reached, a hearing with the PCHB is scheduled to take place June 2-6 in Spokane.

During Tuesday's meeting with county commissioners, several Whitman County residents voiced their concerns over the proposed development and the county entering into a public-private partnership with Hawkins to sell bonds that would pay for public infrastructure necessary for the development. County commissioners plan to eventually pay back the bonds through property and sales taxes generated by the development.

Carolyn Kiesz said it took a lot of guts for the county commissioners to even float the idea of a bond meant to help a private corporation.

"Some of us in this county really don't want to let you get away with that," she told commissioners.

Kiesz said this is not the time for the county to potentially burden its taxpayers. The nation is facing the possibility of a recession and the development would only provide another outlet for foreign products, which means money going out of state and out of the country.

"I just don't think you should be asking for $10 million with no assurances of a return," Kiesz said.

She also said a retail shopping center would not help Whitman County reduce its high poverty rate, which is tops in the state of Washington according to recent statistics from the 2005 U.S. Census. The development would likely provide low-paying jobs and jobs to Moscow residents, and not to people in towns like Malden and Tekoa who really need jobs.

"I think you should be embarrassed" by those poverty-rate numbers, she said. "Bringing retail business is not going to fix that; bringing in manufacturing will help."

Duane Brelsford, president of Corporate Pointe Developers, said he has nothing but praise for Hawkins, but he is skeptical about providing more than $10 million for public infrastructure for the development unless the county is prepared to do the same for other developers. The cost of that would likely approach $100 million.

"I think we are setting a very dangerous precedent by providing infrastructure for this development," Brelsford said. "If we choose to go that direction I think we are going to need a lot more than $10 million because there are a lot more projects that are going in the corridor ... "

Commissioner Michael Largent said he welcomes opinions from those in favor of the bonds and those against the idea.

He also said he does not have all the answers yet, but he told people the commissioners are looking out for the public's interest.

"When we asked the public to give us their comments and start deliberating it didn't mean we had all the answers," Largent said. "Our responsibility is to the taxpayers of Whitman County and not Hawkins."

Commissioner Greg Partch stressed Whitman County would only move forward with the bonds if the deal was right for the county.

"This is not a done deal," Partch said. "We are not married to it. We are married to development on the corridor."

DeVoe added that Hawkins would not go forward with the development unless it was certain several issues - outside the control of Whitman County - could be resolved.

"Without water there is no bond," DeVoe said. "Without a tenant there is no bond and no infrastructure. We are not going to ask for a public-private partnership until those things are secured."

Commissioner Jerry Finch told meeting attendees the Hawkins development would lead to positive growth in the corridor, rather than "a hodgepodge of something we are all embarrassed with."

"I think if we put this shopping center in we will set the tenor for the whole corridor," Finch said. "If we don't, I am convinced there will be a series of steel buildings and parking lots. Whitman County and its citizens will be no better off than they are now."

Largent said the commissioners still hope to make a decision by the end of the month, but that it may be delayed if they aren't satisfied with all the information available.

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