Winslow Way grant draws skeptics

It was a month ago that Bainbridge City Council Chair Bill Knobloch requested that the city administration provide a “Plan B” to fund the Winslow Way reconstruction project.

He was concerned that the cost of the projected $11.5 million project relied too heavily on downtown utility ratepayers (roughly $5.5 million of the project), and that the burden could be increased if a state TIB grant ($3.5 million requested) failed to come to the city and if bond interest rates increased.

Another grant was shown to council members last week, which, if approved, could ease the downtown ratepayers’ burden. But its language and representation of Winslow Way reconstruction is a surprise to Knobloch.

The application for a $2.5 million Economic Development District (EDD) grant available through the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) speaks of the reconstruction as a project that promotes business development. It also mentions that the city’s code that regulates growth in the downtown area is “in the process of being amended” to promote development in conjunction with the project.

According to the PSRC, grant funds are earmarked for infrastructure projects that promote “long-term economic development in areas experiencing substantial economic distress.”

It is that clause, as well as many others in the document, that has Knobloch irked.

“I am disturbed by this application,” he said. “The content does not truly reflect what the council has been saying the project is. They said it’s a barebones utility project, but from what this says it is not. It’s totally different than what I have heard from my colleagues during debate and what the administration has put out to the media – it’s Winslow Tomorrow repackaged.”

His sentiments were echoed by council member Debbie Vancil.

“The only thing I can say is that I am surprised,” she said. “The language that I read described the project differently. This sounds like a revitalization of downtown. That is something I don’t understand,”

According to Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, the grant application is not a departure from the city’s portrayal of the project; it merely highlights certain aspects of the reconstruction that will benefit the community as well as the grant’s requirements.

“We know this is primarily a utility project,” Kordonowy said. “In improving the utilities there will be a lot of benefits to the community...but to think of it as only a utility project is both narrow in focus and, I think, it’s buying into what some people keep debating – that it’s not even a utility project.”

The wording of the application assumes that “inadequate infrastructure services” are the “missing link in realizing development along the corridor,” and that “retail space is in short supply downtown.” There is also an estimate made that by the year 2025, Bainbridge Island could support an additional 350,000 square feet of retail space.

According to Kordonowy, that figure was generated from projected population growth and current island retail facilities.

“Those are estimates based on population growth,” Kordonowy said. “How many square feet do we have now to serve the population and in 2025 what is the growth going to be. It’s a planning formula. If the community wants that, and if we have a population of the size we are projecting, it could be in 2025, then there could be 350,000 square feet of retail space that could support that population.”

“I think it’s great,” Council Member Chris Snow said of the grant. “One of the big concerns we had, and it’s something shared by the community, it seemed ratepayers would get stuck with a big chunk of the project costs.”

Some council members, who have opposed the high ratepayer burden, could be more open to the project if the grant alleviates the taxpayer’s obligation. However, according to Vancil, there are still questions if the grant can be used for the utility upgrades of the project.

“At first blush any influx of cash looks as a good thing,” she said. “But where is the money coming from and how is it going to impact to project? I don’t know if it is going to reduce the obligation of the ratepayers. The ratepayer is paying for the utility portion; this grant does not appear to be for the utility portion. This talks about the streetscape portion, sidewalks and landscaping.”

“I see that this grant is a straightforward way to decrease the burden or minimize the burden on the ratepayers,” Kordonowy said. She added that it was up to council to decide who bears the brunt of the project. “If (council) believes the commercial users should be paying a higher proportion than homeowners, then there is a mechanism for that.”

Regarding those commercial users, only two businesses were mentioned in the grant application; Town and Country Market and the Haggar/Scribner properties that currently house Virginia Mason’s Winslow clinic. The grant says those property owners are “redeveloping their properties in concert with the planned improvements.” The expansion of those two properties, it notes, will result in the $60 million to $90 million of landowner investment in downtown Winslow.

In the planned zoning changes section of the grant, the application mentions revising the comprehensive plan to allow for taller buildings with larger footprints and off-site parking facilities. Most of those proposed amendments failed during the original Winslow Tomorrow process. The parking requirements were allowed to go into effect at last week’s council meeting in a split council vote.

The application was submitted on Oct. 15, 2008, two days before the application deadline. There is no policy for the council to review grant applications by the city.

Still, Knobloch said he will bring up the grant at tomorrow’s afternoon council meeting, when he will argue that the council should have been allowed to review the grant before it was sent.

“To bring these issues up in an application is disturbing,” Knobloch said. “It’s misinformation and things like this can ruin the reputation of a city for future grants. That is my concern.”

The city is currently paying $200,000 to investigate unknown conditions, side surface connections, and soil and hazardous material locations that could impede construction and inflate costs of the reconstruction project.

Reconstruction is expected to begin in 2010.

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