Enumclaw Welcome Center on life support as time runs out

The Enumclaw Welcome Center has floated in the political ether for more than a dozen years, wallowing in the planning stages, targeted by millions of dollars in grant funding while subjected to back-and-forth banter between local and federal agencies.

Now, the long-talked about project is seemingly headed toward an ignominious death. City administration has recommended that the project be scrapped, though members of the City Council are willing to give the idea a bit more time.

The early days

The Welcome Center burst on the scene more than a dozen years ago, spawned by the advent of the Chinook Scenic Byway. The Welcome Center was seen as a local offshoot of the federal designation highlighting a mountainous stretch of state Route 410. The facility was originally conceived as a logical stopping point for anyone headed into Mount Rainier National Park – a building that would include an interpretive center and would be shared by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and the Enumclaw Chamber of Commerce.

The Welcome Center was originally earmarked for a spot of land fronting SR 410 on the city’s eastern edge. An early change came when the city took ownership of the golf course and adjacent King County Fairgrounds. Plans evolved and the center was destined for a parcel adjacent to the fieldhouse, a move that trimmed $1.1 million from the anticipated price tag of $5.7 million.

Troubles arise

The roster of anticipated players was cut by a third when the Chamber of Commerce decided to stay put, preferring its Cole Street quarters to sharing digs in the Welcome Center.

The scale of the planned project was diminished in 2008 when federal administrators noticed the center included a park-and-ride lot where a seldom-used baseball diamond exists. The field, and the stone steps leading to the grounds, were built using Works Progress Administration money during the Great Depression; that meant they couldn’t be touched if federal money was involved.

Another unplanned development came when the state’s Department of Transportation said grant money couldn’t be used for all phases of the project – namely, the second-floor office space – a surprise that landed in the laps of those at city hall.

As time goes by

There was grant money appropriated and architectural renderings done, but the Welcome Center project was treading water as pages flipped by on the municipal calendar. The Great Recession quieted major capital projects and the Welcome Center went years without gaining political traction. Now, it’s 2014 and time is no longer the city’s friend.

And it was time that proved to be Public Enemy No. 1, at least as far at the Welcome Center project was concerned.  The bulk of the grant money was initially appropriated in 2004 and came with a 10-year window of opportunity. If a construction contract is not issued by Sept. 30, a grant of nearly $1.3 million will disappear.

At the last meeting of the city council, City Administrator Chris Searcy reported there’s not enough time to get the ball rolling before the grant money expires. With that in mind, administration recommended the council pull the plug on the longtime dream of building a Welcome Center.

The move wouldn’t come without the potential for some financial pain. The city admits the feds could seek reimbursement of approximately $582,000. Searcy noted that Enumclaw would argue that the money was spent in good faith and the city was blindsided by the ruling that grants could not be used for office space.

A final decision on the matter will come this month.

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