State Parks bill amendment may emperil Fort Worden pact

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — A proposed amendment to a State Parks funding bill would, if approved, delay or even destroy the idea of a lifelong learning center at Fort Worden State Park, according to the chairman of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

The SB 5289 amendment requires that any agreement between the State Parks and an outside entity for managing a facility be subject to legislative approval.

“If this language is included, then we would have to go back to the Legislature to finalize the agreement that is in process,” said Rodger Schmitt, a Port Townsend resident who was elected commission chairman earlier this year.

“The approval wouldn’t come until 2014 and could kill the project,” Schmitt said.

Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, chairman of the budget committee, said he wrote the amendment to provide legislative oversight of the agreement process.

“The Parks Commission isn’t elected, and the PDA board isn’t elected,” he said.

“I wanted to make sure there is some kind of accountability.”

Since early 2012, the Park Service and the Lifelong Learning Center Public Development Authority of Port Townsend have worked to develop an agreement in which the PDA manages the campus portions of Fort Worden State Park while the Park Service maintains traditional park functions such as camping and trails.

Under the joint management agreement, the PDA would oversee an educational facility known as a lifelong learning center, while the state would manage the public parks area.

Last December, the state parks commission approved the PDA’s business plan and a schedule for developing and implementing an agreement that would lead to the PDA taking over the campus portion of the park Jan. 1.

The proposed amendment, which public development officials learned about last Thursday, prompted the cancellation of a regularly scheduled planning meeting that was replaced by a trip to Olympia to lobby against it.

PDA Executive Director Dave Robison, Chairwoman Cindy Finnie and Mayor David King met Wednesday with bill sponsor Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, and made a positive impression, according to King.

“I think it will almost certainly get modified,” King said after the meeting.

King said he told Hudgins that a delay for the agreement would hold back or scuttle the project.

“We had to assure him that we were doing good work already and we would lose opportunities if the project was delayed.”

King said the PDA could do something to reassure the Legislature about the project’s value, which could include some additional oversight while not derailing the process.

Hudgins said he doesn’t know how the final bill will look and did not commit to changing it or letting it stand as is.

“There are a lot of good people involved in this and I’m not trying to derail the deal,” he said.

“But we need to have due diligence on a 50-year lease that is being signed for a $4 million piece of public property.”

Schmitt said that extended leases will be necessary to get new tenants to invest in rehabilitating the older buildings, but such leases will not cede control of the park to outside entities.

Schmitt said the amendment’s requirement to get legislative approval for every partnership would not only scuttle the Fort Worden proposal but threaten other similar agreements.

“This would make any of these agreements impossible to negotiate,” Schmitt said.

“We might negotiate something with a partner and come to an agreement, but the Legislature would modify the agreement, and it would go back and forth like a pingpong ball, and it would never be approved.”

Port Townsend School of Woodworking founder Tim Lawson said the addition to the bill was worrisome to Fort Worden partners, which include the school along with Centrum and the Madrona MindBody Institute.

“I think there is some optimism that we can get this part of the bill [changed],” Lawson said.

“If it isn’t removed, it will stop the lifelong learning center dead in its tracks.”

Lawson said the Olympia delegation intends to connect with legislators who are supporting the bill and convince them to remove the addition.

He said he and other PDA supporters planned to approach state Reps. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, and Kevin Van De Wege, also a Sequim Democrat, both of whom represent the 24th District, which includes Jefferson County.

“We won’t have to lobby them because they are aware of the situation,” Lawson said.

“We just want to make sure they know how important this is.”

Schmitt said if the amendment is included and the PDA is derailed, it could have a ripple effect that would threaten the operation of Fort Worden State Park and even lead to its closure.

“Right now, Fort Worden is running at a deficit of $1.1 million a year,” Schmitt said.

“We expected the PDA to assume some of those costs and bring in some outside development, but if that doesn’t happen, the deficit will continue, and Fort Worden, which has the highest deficit of any single park, could be jeopardized.

“We’ve made a lot of cutbacks and can’t go any further,” he said.

“If we don’t get funding, we will have no choice but to close parks.”



Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at charlie.bermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 10. 2013 5:57PM
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