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Winslow Way plan inches forward

Vigorous community debate occurs over engineering contracts.

Four hours of public comment, another hour of Bainbridge City Council debate and still no consensus on Winslow Way.

Citizens overflowed Council Chambers on Wednesday in what became an impromptu town hall meeting on the divisive downtown reconstruction project.

At issue was an ordinance before the council to approve a $1.18 million contract with Heery International for the final engineering design of the downtown renovation.

“I think tonight is a milestone event,” said Larry Nakata, owner of Town and Country. “Our enthusiasm waned along the way. There was so much distrust and miscommunication. This has been a polarizing topic for seemingly an eternity.”

That polarization was apparent at Wednesday’s meeting. Impassioned arguments from across the spectrum continued late into the evening.

Council member Debbie Vancil said the entire Winslow Way process had been devastating to the community’s perception of city government.

“This city should not be a catalyst to divide the community. We have to recognize that this organization lost the community’s trust,” Vancil said.

Both opponents and proponents of the project spoke of their disillusionment as well. Some expressed their frustration that it had taken so many years to move the project forward and, despite $6 million in grants, were confused as to why there was still opposition to the project.

Others said there were many unanswered questions regarding the funding strategy of the reconstruction.

Council members Kim Brackett, Bill Knobloch and Vancil all reiterated their stance that a long-awaited rate-study for the downtown utilities is needed before appropriating money. They also spoke of the disproportionate burden ratepayers would be shouldering for both the Winslow Way project and the wastewater treatment plant.

“It’s not the project, it was never the project,” Vancil said. “It’s the money.”

Virginia Paul, a retired teacher who lives downtown on a fixed income, said utility increases would have a dramatic effect on her finances that depend largely on Social Security checks.

“I disagree that 2,200 ratepayers should carry excess cost,” she said. “My taxes have increased dramatically. I have not a clue as to what to anticipate.”

Some also criticized the $1,178.806 engineering contract, saying that it should have been bid out to receive lower estimates. According to City Attorney Paul McMurray, unlike construction contracts, engineering and architectural contracts do not require a public bidding process. The city chose to go with Heery because the international company is familiar with the project.

Continued talk about delaying the project led city planner Chris Wierzbicki to speak up for approving the contract.

“We can’t afford to postpone this project any further,” he said. “This has been going on for almost two years now. Any other contractor would have dropped us by now and said it’s not worth it.”

Barbara Tolliver, co-owner of the Traveller, and a Winslow resident for more than 20 years, spoke adamantly for the project, and reiterated that timing and unity on the project was needed to get business owners through the difficult days ahead.

“I need a commitment and a definite schedule to make business decisions,” she said. “It will be a tough time, the honest thing is some of us will not survive. But as a community we will endure.”

After the council approved the contract, councillors spoke of the need for the community and council to support its development.

“I think tonight was a very large community conversation, that we all learned from,” council member Hilary Franz said. “It was a respectful conversation which will be a part of rebuilding a community again.”

Others admitted that although the process had always had vocal opposition, now was the time to use those efforts to make sure the project was completed at or below cost.

“For those who spoke against it, my commitment is that we put ourselves on the line to make this project succeed on time and on budget,” said council member Barry Peters. “Let’s bring the community back together over a project that has been terribly divisive.”

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