Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"Whitman County commissioner says it's time for action on Hawkins plan; Private-public infrastructure partnership under consideration"

From today's Lewiston Tribune:
COLFAX - The proposed Hawkins Companies shopping center development adjacent to Moscow is not inevitable and the time has come for some tough decisions to be made, officials said here Monday.

"If we aren't willing to step up and be involved, maybe we don't deserve to have it," Whitman County Commissioner Jerry Finch said of the proposed 700,000-square-foot development.

Hawkins, a Boise-based company, last week asked the county to issue bonds to the tune of $10.4 million and enter into a private-public partnership for infrastructure construction, including water and sewer services for the development.

"I think in a perfect world, they should do this (pay for the infrastructure) 100 percent on their dime," Finch said during a public comment meeting on the proposal.

But Hawkins, said Finch, has been stymied by lost time and ballooning costs, much of it linked to Moscow officials who refused to provide water and sewer services, while mounting a legal challenge of Hawkins' attempts to secure its own water rights.

"I've been working with Hawkins people, along with my public works department, now for about three years," Finch said, "and we've finally got to the point where we either have to step up and move on, or we have to say, basically, we don't have an interest in you. Take your development ideas elsewhere."

About a dozen people attended the meeting. Several spoke out in favor of the development. No one spoke against it, but a few people questioned the need for taxpayers to help fund a private business venture.

"The board of commissioners can do this bond on their own authority, I'm told," Commission Chairman Michael Largent said. "However, since it's such a large issue we wanted to give people an opportunity to comment about how they felt about this project."

No Moscow officials attended. But Tom Forbes, spokesman for a group called Businesses and Residents for Economic Opportunity, called for introspection on the part of Moscow mayor and councilors. "It is our hope that we can once again work cooperatively with the city of Moscow to everyone's benefit," Forbes said, "versus the contentious relationship we've had for the last couple of years."

Moscow's water and sewer lines abut the Hawkins acreage. And a majority of members on the new Moscow City Council said last week they'd be open to renewed talks with Hawkins and Whitman County.

Finch has said the Hawkins shopping center would mark the beginning of stepped-up retail development within the Moscow-Pullman corridor.

Gary Kopf, whose family owns several hundred acres within the corridor and has already developed some property, said he favors infrastructure, perhaps coming from both Moscow and Pullman. Several people agreed that would make more sense than forcing each new business to build its own water and sewer system.

Moscow Mayor Nancy Chaney, who appealed Hawkins' water rights, reiterated last week her intentions are to ensure the entire region's water supply, not stop retail development.

Barring Moscow dropping its appeals and becoming part of the shopping center development, Hawkins will apparently need the county's help, Largent said. "We're not going to make public investments until those water rights are secured."

The appeals aren't scheduled to be heard until later this spring. Moscow has requested mediation. Whitman County has requested an expedited appeal process. Jeff De Voe, spokesman for Hawkins, said last week that the company hopes to begin construction this year.

"They've invested quite a bit of money," Largent said of Hawkins. "I believe the issue they have with water rights transfer ... has increased the development costs to such a point that they're asking for a public-private partnership to keep this project a reality."

While specifics of the partnership are still unclear, once the bonds are paid off the county would own the infrastructure, including the water rights, the three commissioners agreed. The company would have to pay the county monthly utility fees for the services.

"They've made it very clear that they're either going to have us as a partner, or I think they're going to walk," Finch said.

Commissioner Greg Partch said public-private agreements, such as the Hawkins infrastructure proposal, are common throughout Washington when trying to attract larger businesses. But several at the meeting agreed Moscow officials caused most of the problems.

"This has been ongoing since the fall of 2005. And it's now over two years later that Hawkins has got to this point," Forbes said, "and I think it's fair to say ... that we would probably be a lot further along in a regulatory permitting process if not for the series of appeals filed by Moscow."

A second public comment meeting will be conducted here today at 2:30 p.m. in county commission chambers. Hawkins Companies representatives are expected to attend.

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