Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Monday, July 14, 2008

"Economy stalls work at Hawkins site; Commissioner says water issues with city not to blame for lack of progress"

Okay, I'll admit it. I'm confused.

Last Tuesday, Whitman County Commissioner Jerry Finch blamed Moscow in the Lewiston Tribune for the delay in breaking ground at the Hawkins site in the corridor.

The next day in the Trib, Commissioner Michael Largent said everything was fine.

Now, Commissioner Greg Partch tells the Daily News that it's the economy that's causing the slowdown.

Only Hawkins knows for sure, and they're not talking.

I have been around the retail development process enough over the last few years to learn a few things. I know that the legal and real estate departments often advise playing things close to the vest. I realize, as Commissioner Partch stated, Hawkins will run this project on their own timeline. But sometimes, this strategy creates a bit of a PR mess.

Nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of fact, speculation rushes in to fill the void. Rumors are flying now that Lowe's is pulling out, Hawkins is scrapping their development plans, etc.

Some straight answers would be nice right about now. I'm working hard to find out what's going on.

From Friday's Moscow-Pullman Daily News:

Whitman County Commissioner Greg Partch said struggling national and regional economies likely are to blame for work not having started at the site of Hawkins Companies' retail development, rather than ongoing water negotiations between Moscow and the county.

Hawkins officials had planned to break ground by June 1 at the future home of its 714,000-square-foot shopping center located just west of the Idaho border. Hawkins representative Jeff DeVoe did not return calls seeking comment.

"Obviously, the economy has really slowed down and projects like this slow down too," Partch said. "I still expect things to go forward.

"They have to work at the speed that is suited to their needs," he added. "They are very much committed to this ... I am not concerned."

In February, Moscow and Hawkins agreed on a deal for the city to provide water services to the development in exchange for Hawkins retiring two water rights it had secured for its development.

Whitman County became involved in the process when the Idaho Department of Water Resources asked Moscow to reach an intergovernmental agreement with the county for the water sale rather than deal directly with a private entity across state lines.

Partch said county staff are reviewing the draft agreement with Moscow. He has several concerns with the draft, which he describes as much more complicated than needed.

One issue is that the draft calls for a joint board to administer the agreement, something Partch sees as unnecessary.

Partch also has concerns over a provision that deals with future water concerns and states that Idaho water law would dictate solutions should issues arise.

Water rates also are a concern for Partch. The draft states that Moscow will dictate the rates, and he would like to see a baseline rate and an assurance that future rates wouldn't be "picked out of the air" and become unaffordable.

"It's way overwritten as to what this is," Partch said. "I think they are making it much more complicated than it needs to be.

"I think it has some flaws that I am not happy with, but at least it's a place to start. We intend to work with the city of Moscow and work out some sort of agreement."

Moscow City Councilman Walter Steed said the agreement was written by city staff and presented to the council several weeks ago. The council also noticed some issues with the agreement, but elected to forward it to the Whitman County Commissioners to avoid slowing the process.

"It's a first draft," Steed said. "We could have held it up for two to four weeks. We didn't want to slow the process down any more than we had to."

Steed said Partch's concerns are legitimate and he hopes to sit down with Whitman County commissioners soon to iron out a solution.

"I think they are good questions and good concerns and I just want to get around a table and talk about them," Steed said.

He also questioned the need for an agreement altogether and hopes to have IDWR attend to clarify the situation.

"We are encouraging everybody to have a meeting and all sit down," Steed said.

The lack of an agreement has not hindered progress at the Hawkins site, Partch said. The company can begin drilling wells at any time according to an agreement the company reached with Moscow.

"It hasn't slowed Hawkins, they are going to drill their wells and move forward," Partch said, adding that he expects drilling to begin soon.

Partch also anticipates that ground work will begin this year and that actual construction will start next spring. Hawkins' officials have said the center's anchor store - Lowe's - is expected to open for business in September 2009.

"Hawkins never indicated there would be any construction (this year), but there's a huge amount of land-leveling to do," Partch said. "This is a Hawkins project and we are here to help them. They will do things on their time line."

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